Colin Billings was losing sleep.
It was 2014. In his executive role at Stitcher, he was handling both product development and navigating the company's pending acquisition by Paris-based streaming service Deezer. Billings spent long days under fluorescent lights looking at screens -- and many nights awake with insomnia. He didn't connect the two until a friend suggested he install F.lux, a program that could adjust his computer screen's color temperature.
Within a week, Billings was sleeping better. And within months, the acquisition was finalized. (Stitcher did not disclose financial terms, and only 22 employees went to Deezer. Two years later, Stitcher was sold again, combined with other assets, and acquired by SiriusXM in a deal valued up to $325 million.)
Once Billings had restful sleep, time, and money, he realized he also had a startup idea: An adaptive system for modern lighting that wouldn't mess with humans' circadian rhythms. But as a first-time CEO, he faced a steep learning curve on the way to engineering and designing an adaptive-lighting system, and unique challenges in bringing his innovative product to market.
"Only in the last 100 years has artificial light been something we can regularly use. There's an obvious benefit, but like many new technologies, there's a shadow side; a downside that affects many, many people," Billings explains. "It captured my imagination because lighting is a powerful force in our lives. It affects our sense of safety and security, and our concept of home. I could imagine the feeling of walking into a home where the lights then instantly come on for you."
He had ecological motivations too. After doing significant research, he estimates that roughly five percent of carbon emissions are caused by lights left on needlessly. So Billings sought to harness what F.lux does for computer monitors -- adjust brightness as needed, and dim in the evenings -- and apply it to entire homes.
His first office was his apartment in San Francisco. His first mountain to climb was form factor. Billings assumed he could harness emerging smart-bulb technology by wiring together a few of those bulbs and writing a program on his Mac Mini. Voila, he thought, a lighting system that would temperature-adjust based on time of day.
"I failed tremendously," he said. While smart-bulbs hook into standard electric wiring, each has its own toggle. "When you go beyond a light or two, it gets really complicated. Plus, if a system like that did work, it would mean you'd have to start saying weird things to house-guests," he said. He envisioned having to instruct friends to never touch the light switches. Or if they wanted to turn off a light, they'd have to download an app first.
Two revelations drove his next iteration of the design. One: Adjusting the brightness of a light is more important than color temperature in maintaining circadian rhythms. That meant he didn't need to rely on expensive smart-bulbs, and instead could use dimmable LEDs, which were becoming more common. Two: Smart-home systems already existed, they were just outside of mainstream consumers' price points. He turned his attention from the bulb to the light switch. Could he build a simple light-switch-sized panel that could detect a human's presence, respond to it, and control a home's lighting -- adapting to a host of different scenarios?
He spent the next year and a half on research and development, and prototyping. Billings, who's now 39, eschewed crowdfunding. "I knew that for every success, like Pebble, there were 100 carnage stories of people who'd raised funding and were never able to ship their product," Billings said. Instead of risking his reputation, he took on the financial burden of prototyping himself, investing more than $150,000 of his own money (he thanks the Stitcher acquisition for allowing him to fund his team). Along with a lot of sweat equity from co-founder Allen Schober and the product's first engineer, Joe Keto, they tested a series of prototypes and sought input from hundreds of individuals. They eventually put together a funding round (amount undisclosed) that allowed them to scale up manufacturing. They had dubbed the prototype "Edison" but renamed it "Orro," a variation on the Spanish word for gold and a reference to the golden hour before dusk when natural light is warm, to avoid any copyright issues upon launch.
In 2019, the company launched publicly, and began selling its smart light switches, which start at $149. Orro switches can be installed piecemeal and are expandable to a whole-home system. The switches integrate with other smart-home systems, such as Amazon's Alexa, Sonos audio systems, and home-security. They use both motion and sound sensors to determine whether a space in the home is being used, the time of day, and user preferences to adjust lighting levels as needed.
Inspired by other smart-home devices -- such as Ring (the $99 video doorbell launched in 2013) and Nest (the "self-learning" thermostat introduced in 2011 and acquired by Google), which consumers were buying directly online -- Billings and his team launched with a direct-to-consumer strategy. "That for us was a red herring," he said. Sales weren't picking up like he'd anticipated. Research into his market's needs led Billings to change strategy. "We learned that about three-quarters of all these smart-home devices are installed by professionals." In 2021, Orro began making most of its sales to home-builders, electricians, and other professionals.
The company, now based in San Mateo, California, has competition -- both from existing lighting and switchmakers (such as Lutron, which makes a smart-home system called Caseta), and startups (such as Brilliant, which is also based in San Mateo). Still, the fact that builders are so keen on installing Orro to new construction projects is one Billings sees as a good signal of a wider adoption of smart lighting. "The smart home may be having its 'dishwasher' moment, where builders are feeling less competitive in the market if they don't include smart features," he says.