Itron Innovation Team Readies New IoT Solar Monitor
- January 11, 2016
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A BUSINESS UNIT THAT ITRON INC. formed 18 months ago to spur innovation will likely see its first product go to market early next year.
The Liberty Lake, Washington, maker of utility metering hardware and software is getting ready to launch what it calls the Solar Gate, according to Roberto Aiello, Itron's head of new business innovation.
The Solar Gate enables companies that install solar generation equipment on homeowners' rooftops to monitor the equipment's performance. The device gathers information from a variety of sensors and wirelessly transmits it to the cloud where Itron's software enables it to access and parse it.
"We read something like 10 or 20 different types of sensors in the home related to the production of energy, and we take all this data to the cloud and we analyze that data to provide business value to our customers," Aiello said.
"In a way, this is very much the business value of the Internet of Things, where the network makes sense of data to provide business value."
The Solar Gate also communicates with the electric meter in the home on whose roof the solar-generation system is located.
Aiello thinks the Solar Gate is a good example of how his unit is supposed to function. He said Itron employees didn't come up with the idea for it by sitting around thinking about what products and services the company's customers could use, but by actually talking to the customers. They then worked with the customers to develop the Solar Gate and the software that allows the customers to view the information it produces.
"In less than a year we went from idea to product," he said.
Aiello is a longtime tech entrepreneur who began his career as a physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California, has started two semiconductor companies to commercialize products based on ultra-wideband wireless technology, and spent two years as an entrepreneur in residence at Disney Research, an international network of labs owned by the Walt Disney Co.
Aiello had been consulting for Itron since June 2009, but joined the company a year-and-a-half ago to help it produce more innovations in emerging or rapidly growing markets.
His group works by identifying a problem an Itron customer is having, devising a solution for the problem and creating a business model around it.
"When the business model is proven, we transition the project to the [appropriate] business unit," he said.
In the case of the Solar Gate, that will likely be Itron's electricity business unit. (Its other two business units are gas and water.) Aiello's group employs about 10, but uses as many outside workers as it needs, including entrepreneurs who join Itron for specified terms. Aiello thinks they give Itron a sense of urgency that's necessary for the company to succeed.
"I think I'm really following a generic technology trend where things are changing faster every year, so we've got to get in that mode if we want to keep the company competitive," he said.
The extra people help Aiello's group see quickly which of its projects have potential and which should be abandoned. Since it was formed, Aiello said, the group has worked on 10 to 15 projects, five or six of which it has dropped.
Aiello views failed projects as a mark of success for his group because he thinks not producing failures would be an indication that it's not considering enough ideas.
"We're expecting projects to fail and we're trying to reach a point of either failure or not as fast as possible so we limit the investment" in unsuccessful projects, he said.
In baseball terms, Aiello expects his group to produce about two home runs and two to three singles out of every 10 projects it starts.
"I think we're higher than that right now, but it's statistics," he said. "I'm not getting super excited that we're batting higher this year because we'll be batting lower next year."
Aiello's group hopes to use existing Itron technology in its projects, but it's also encouraging other companies to help it.
This May, the company invited developers to create Internet-of-Things applications for Riva, its platform that uses Cisco Systems Inc. technology to enable computing power and communications ability to be deployed to devices that are located on the edges of the networks they're part of.
"The idea is we can create an ecosystem of developers," Aiello said. "In a way, we can crowd-source our product ideas from our customers."