The idea for Keen Home's Smart Vent didn't come to Ryan Fant in a dream, but he was trying to get to sleep when it hit him.
“My New York City apartment has 16-foot ceilings, and there is a vent sitting right over my bed,” says Fant. Late one night in 2012, he lay there, air in his face, thinking, “There’s no reason I can’t use my iPhone to shut this for 15 minutes, to get a little bit of comfort as I’m falling asleep.”
That Thanksgiving, Fant, who was in his first year at New York University’s Stern School of Business, went to visit his parents in southern Illinois. Armed with a stopwatch, he walked around their house, testing to see when the thermostat kicked on and off and determining how closing vents in unoccupied rooms would take pressure off the HVAC system as a whole. When his research revealed a significant energy savings--as much as 30 percent--his midnight reverie went from "wouldn't it be great" to "this thing has legs."
Back at NYU, Fant approached classmate Nayeem Hussain about helping him enter the idea into the school’s annual Entrepreneurs Challenge. As the pair assembled a focus group of students, they saw a flier for TechCrunch’s StartUp Battlefield competition in New York and decided, on a whim, to submit an application.
They never expected the call from TechCrunch East Coast editor John Biggs: “He said, ‘Wow, the product is cool--if we bless you, will we have the physical product to show onstage?’” says Hussain. “We lied and told him yes, though the product was just renderings on an iPad. We didn’t have a company, let alone a product to show.”
With just a month and a half until the competition, Fant and Hussain did have big-time motivation: They logged 120-hour weeks, finishing their business plan, building a prototype, putting up a website, and refining their six-minute pitch. “And then,” says Hussain, “we got the crazy idea to put together a crowdfunding campaign at the same time.”
Their Indiegogo campaign went live on April 29, 2013, the moment they took the stage at the Manhattan Center for the TechCrunch battle. “It was our coming-out party,” says Fant. They made it to the final round, and though they didn’t win, “we raised the $40,000, which hit our mark,” he says. “We got some nice exposure and nice press coverage.”
They had also created the necessary momentum to go all in: The duo hired a CTO and a team of engineers to begin prototyping in earnest. Hussain, who graduated that spring, turned down an investment banking job offer in order to focus full time on raising capital and developing the business.
This past December, Keen Home landed a coveted spot in the R/GA and Techstars-sponsored accelerator program for connected devices. “The collaborative spirit has been amazing,” says Hussain. “Someone always has a relevant skill set that we need and is willing to help out.” Though the official program ended a few weeks ago, Fant and Hussain will remain in the office space until the end of the summer.
By then, Keen Home will be tooling up overseas to get the product to market by the fall, says Fant. The company's distribution plan has three prongs: online channels like SmartThings; retail stores like Lowe’s; and home security companies like ADT and cable companies.
The third prong is unique because a representative is already coming in to a customer’s home to provide a service. “It’s a push rather than a pull,” says Hussain. “You’re not educating yourself by reading a package on a shelf.”
At the same time, thanks to a $20,000 grant from NYU, the company is looking to expand into the commercial space by piloting its technology in the college’s dorms.
Keen Home began with vents, but the founders insist it won’t end there. “We’re thinking of the home as a body,” says Fant. “The respiratory system is an analogy for the Smart Vent, but there’s also plumbing, electrical, and other forgotten--or ‘sleepy’--systems.”
Keen Home in Brief:
Company: Keen Home
Headquarters: New York, New York
Founders: Ryan Fant, 29, and Nayeem Hussain, 31
Year Founded: 2013