Voice-activated computer Ubi calls on crowdfunding

The voice control offered on smartphones, such as Siri for iPhone, is pretty impressive. But what if you could have that same sort of technology to control your home?

That’s what the voice-activated computer Ubi promises. Imagine being able to turn on your lights, activate your appliances, and adjust the thermostat just by shouting out a command. The Toronto-based team behind Ubi envisions future smart homes with Ubi devices plugged into different rooms, offering you the ability to ask for recipe instructions while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or search the Internet while reading in your living room.

But before that future is realized, the startup firm needs some seed capital to build its product. So it started with a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Aiming for a goal of $36,000, the team ended up raising almost $230,000. We asked them to share their success story and thoughts on crowdfunding. Leor Grebler, CEO and co-founder, was happy to respond.

Brian Jackson: Briefly tell us your story – what is your project and why did you turn to crowdfunding?

Leor Grebler: We’ve developed a device that we believe will change how people interact with computers and technology. Ubi – which is short for ubiquitous computer – is a small computer that plugs into a standard power outlet and connects to the Internet through your WiFi. You just plug it in and it listens for commands from you – you can search the Internet, make calls, send emails – all through your voice without having to use your hands.  It reads back search results, emails, and can also alert you through multi-coloured lights that are built into it. You can even control lights, appliances, and your thermostat – all through your voice.

On the flip side, the Ubi contains different sensors that can monitor a room’s temperature, humidity, air pressure, ambient light, and sound level. People can use this data to set up triggers – like sending a text message if a loud noise is heard during certain hours.

The Ubi team meets with tech icon Steve Wozniak (middle right). Mahyar Fotoohi (left), Leor Grebler (middle left), and Amin Abdossalami (right.)

Over the past year, we developed our idea – an always-on and ready source of information that would enhance our own intelligence and at the same time allow us to access technology without distracting us. We were inspired by technologies like Siri and other Kickstarter projects that made the Internet of Things closer to reality.

Shortly after we started to develop first concepts, we realized that the technology in speech recognition had advanced to a point where we could actually make the Ubi. We started down the path of building a prototype and then realized that we needed quite a bit of capital to take it from prototype to something we could manufacture. 

We had a few options – we could take out debt, we could try to get VC funding, or we could go out and use a crowdfunding website, in our case – Kickstarter.  We were very risk averse so decided to go through the latter option for a few reasons. The first is that Kickstarter would get us the capital to actually build the Ubi and the second was that it would allow us to demonstrate in some way that there is a market for the Ubi and that the project is worth pursuing. We also didn’t initially pursue VC as we felt this would distract from developing the earlier versions of the Ubi.

BJ: How successful was the model of crowdfunding vs. your expectations of it?

LG: We were really surprised by our success on Kickstarter. We were hoping for mildly passing our goal of $36,000 but ended up getting over six times that at $229,000. The other pleasant surprise was the passion of people who backed our project.  They are very participatory and provide insightful feedback – a lot more than in a traditional consumer relationship.

There were some challenges along the way. We felt we were in a constant race against time before another project similar to ours would appear.  We also needed to deal with some of Kickstarter’s policies and governance, which aren’t always the most transparent. 

On the other hand, we didn’t expect Kickstarter to do such a great job in marketing people to their Web site.  This has helped drive a lot more traffic to our current site, theubi.com, and help us with pre-orders after the campaign.

Considering equity-based crowdfunding

BJ: Comment on equity-based crowdfunding; is this something you’d want to participate in? Do you think it would be better than the crowdfunding style you took part in, or not? Why?

LG: Equity-based crowdfunding is interesting but brings up a lot of questions. Who is investing? How do you treat their shares? What are their expectations?  With “traditional” crowdfunding (it’s only a few years old, so it’s hard to say it’s traditional), there’s a growing expectation for a tangible good or service to be delivered in exchange for someone’s contribution.  These are the “rewards” that people get in exchange for contributions. There is also a known risk that the person making the contribution takes – that they might not get exactly what they paid for as they’re helping bring a technology to life.

It would have probably been a lot more difficult to run an equity-based campaign for us instead of Kickstarter. People who invest are usually expecting a return at some point. At the point our project was at before we launched the Kickstarter campaign, it would be difficult to know how successful we’d be. There’s also the old adage “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”  This would have been the case if we sold equity. There would be no test of the market.

In its current model, Kickstarter helped us preserve all our equity.  We can now use it to help us secure resources to continue development of the Ubi – this could be exchanging equity for either cash or technical advising, or both.

Equity-based crowdfunding could be useful to us if the pool of backers were qualified. In our case, this would mean people or companies with experience in developing technology similar to ours or who share the same vision for changing how we interact with technology. Random investments or investments from people who are looking for quick returns could possibly inhibit us from being able to carry out our plans. Instead, if the pool of potential equity backers was made of people who we wanted to be partners with, then it could be very appealing. 

Brian JacksonBrian Jackson is the Editor at ITBusiness.ca. E-mail him at bjackson@itbusiness.ca, follow him on Twitter, connect on , read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.
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