Demo Day: Accelerating Home Automation

December 12, 2014

American Family insurance

On Wednesday night, entrepreneurs from 10 startup companies in the American Family-Microsoft accelerator presented their home-automation ideas at the accelerator’s culminating event, billed as Demo Day. It was the chance for the innovators to pitch their products and business plans – developed during the course of the four-month accelerator – to investors, news media and others.

The pitches to a crowd of 370 people came fast and furious. Participants were introduced by their program mentors, some of them from American Family, and gave five-minute presentations on how their products would help prevent home accidents, and make homes more secure and energy efficient.

Following the presentations, participants staffed small exhibits where they met with potential investors one-on-one.

By working with American Family and Microsoft, the startups received mentorship, tools, customer insights and business connections needed to accelerate their growth. We also offered business development and marketing expertise to help the startups bring their innovations to market as well as an optional $25,000 investment from American Family Ventures for each startup in the program.

Participants praised American Family’s involvement, including in helping them revise their products and business plans to align more closely with homeowner needs, particularly when it comes to protecting homes proactively and preventing accidents and claims. Approximately 30 mentors from American Family helped out in the accelerator.

“It feels like graduation day in college, very bittersweet,” said Jerry Callahan, CEO of Heatworks, which has created a tankless water system designed to heat water faster and more efficiently. “You’ve learned so much and feel ready to conquer the world, but you know it’s likely you won’t see many of these people again, people who have really helped you. I hope we stay in touch.”

In addition to being American Family’s first national startup accelerator, this opportunity increased our ability to learn from and harness rapidly changing technology on home automation.

“Working with startups and making early-stage investments in emerging technology companies is a great way to support the ecosystem and benefit our customers,” said Dan Reed, director of American Family Ventures “We believe very strongly that integrating technology into homes may lead to increased engagement with insurance providers, and have other benefits like increased retention and satisfaction among our customers.”

Inspiring startups

While all the entrepreneurs and the startups involved in this program were inspiring, American Family Ventures has taken the next step and further invested in one of the participating companies, Chai Energy. The company helps users reduce their energy consumption and provides real-time alerts of unusual energy use patterns that could signal a potential home accident.

The Chai Gateway plugs into your Internet connection and connects wirelessly to your home’s smart electrical meter. Chai’s product will tell you exactly how and where energy is being spent in your home – down to the appliance – helping you identify if an appliance is a safety risk through unusual energy consumption and if it needs to be repaired or replaced. The product can also notify you if you have accidentally left appliances on.

We are in discussion with other participants and plan to stay involved with all the companies in some way.

“The creativity, courage and persistence displayed by the startups was inspiring,” said Ryan Rist, innovation director. “They accepted the opportunity with total dedication, passion and enthusiasm. They sought to not only develop and strengthen their products and business models, but freely helped their fellow start-ups do the same.

“The insurance industry is viewed at times as slow moving, but American Family is determined to be a leader when it comes to quickly and smartly innovating in ways that benefit our customers,” continued Ryan. “There is still a lot to learn about home automation, but we want to not only be on the playing field, but also help lead the charge for our customers.”

Next steps

We’ve enjoyed a strong partnership with Microsoft in the past and will continue to partner with them in the future. However, we are not in the business of running accelerators of this scale. We will continue to be involved in accelerators, as they provide a window into the startups community and innovation in general.