Competition heating up for Toronto-based thermostat company

Toronto-based company Ecobee beat a top Apple designer, Google, and industry giant Honeywell to what could potentially be a billion-dollar idea.

Now, Ecobee has to prove it can execute on its plan better than its much-larger rivals.

Back in 2009, Ecobee boasted it was the first company in the world to release a WiFi-connected thermostat, which could be remotely controlled via the web or a smartphone app.

It was early days for the technology — and the thermostat had an eye-popping $385 price tag — but with mobile connectivity rapidly taking off, the company seemed well positioned to take advantage of the booming trend.

But competitors weren’t far behind.

The next year, former Apple designer Tony Fadell — best known as one of the key figures behind the creation of the iPod — started a company called Nest Labs, which would also make a WiFi thermostat called Nest. He planned to up the ante by making Nest a beautiful object that homeowners would proudly display on their wall.

Nest quickly took off and suddenly became a very daunting rival. Nest Labs got even stronger earlier this year, when Google bought the company.

And then this summer, old-school thermostat company Honeywell released a Nest-lookalike WiFi thermostat called Lyric.

But Ecobee co-CEO Stuart Lombard insists being David to a couple of Goliaths hasn’t been a bad thing.

Competition helps generate buzz

“When Nest launched in 2010, maybe 18 months after we launched, it brought a lot of buzz to the category. So Nest entering into the market has actually been a great boon to our business because people now understand what WiFi-connected thermostats are,” Lombard says.

“If you’re the only person in the market, odds are no one’s talking about it. The more people that get involved in the market, the more dynamic the market is, the bigger the market is, and the more opportunity there is.

“So while Nest is obviously a formidable competitor, as is Honeywell, the market is growing at a fantastic rate.”

Ecobee’s latest thermostat, the Ecobee3 — which sells for $249 — has a similar look to the Nest and Lyric, although it’s more square than circular.

While it has a colour screen, the Ecobee3 largely uses a black and white interface, unlike the Nest which has a bold blue or red background depending on whether it’s controlling the air conditioner or furnace.

“This product, if you look at it, is very different from Nest…. Honeywell came out with a product recently that is very similar to the Nest, we’ve taken a very different approach,” Lombard says.

“We tried to keep that minimalistic, sleek style of design so that it would fit with people’s decor, go with all kinds of different homes, and look modern.”

The biggest differentiator with the Ecobee3 is its ability to work with remote sensors. The thermostat comes with one sensor in the box, which can be placed anywhere in the home. Users can fine-tune their home’s temperature to the location of the sensor — for example, they can tell the Ecobee3 to keep running the air conditioner or furnace until their bedroom hits their magic number.

“The fact that it’s comfortable in your hallway doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s comfortable in the rooms you actually live in,” says Lombard, adding that additional sensors can be purchased in packs of two for $79.

While Ecobee has yet to make retail inroads like Nest Labs has, Lombard is confident the company can continue to grow and compete.

“Obviously Google has very deep pockets, Google has big ambitions and Google is willing to fund. So we don’t take them lightly,” he says.

“But Nest and Google entering the business has only been a good thing for us because ultimately we believe we have better products and we can compete with anyone in the world.”

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