Talk about horsepower. Few start-ups in history have gathered so many prominent company builders in one place as Echelon Systems Corp., a one-year-old company in Los Gatos, Calif. Begin with founder A. C. "Mike" Markkula Jr., who teamed with Steven P. Jobs and Stephen G. Wozniak to launch Apple Computer. Move on to CEO M. Kenneth Oshman, founder of Rolm, the telecommunications company. Throw in legendary venture capitalist Arthur Rock and Teledyne chairman Henry Singleton, both of whom have come in as investors. And for good measure, add some financing from Apple Computer and Venrock Associates.

And what kind of business would attract such a star-studded roster? Home and factory automation. Echelon is developing local operating networks, or LONs. Each LON is essentially a loop of microprocessors capable of sensing the status of equipment and reporting the information up the line. Such networks could be used in houses to connect and automate furnaces and security systems, or in the factory to provide sensors and controllers for robots and other computerized machinery.

Echelon, which is still a year away from introducing its first product, has many competitors. But Oshman says, "I don't think anyone is doing what we're doing. We're jumping a square and providing a new vision of the solution." He adds that the payoff could be enormous: "This market is bigger than Rolm's." Markkula has been quoted as saying that Echelon's product will have "a more significant impact on the way people will live" than the PC. Then again -- given the composition of the start-up team -- anything less would be a disappointment.

-- Stephen D. Solomon