Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Wireless Guard's Taylor Howatson on beating terrible odds, the joy of freedom and the likelihood of robot guard dogs

From left: Taylor Howatson, Jacob Kohn, Gabriel Eden and Anthony Lefebvre-Allen

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of the lucky ten is Wireless Guard, a company that aims to "help households reduce their risk of burglary through increasing the functionality of current home security systems". We chat with co-founder and chief executive Taylor Howatson. 

Ben Fahy, Idealog's publisher and editorial director: Taylor, most of us are accustomed to smartphones.Smarthomes, not so much. What's the big idea? And what's wrong with the standard home security system?

Taylor Howatson, chief executive of Wireless Guard: Myself and Anthony [Lefebvre-Allen], I guess we're a bit frustrated around current security models. Current security models are very much reaction based, so someone breaks into the home and an alarm goes off. That's all good and well but it;s totally reliant on someone servicing that alarm, so you need a security personnel to be monitoring it and then coming to visit or you need active neighbours to come over and check the property. so myself and Ants while we were at University we wanted to do something with preventative security, so the burglar could never actually get into the property and so that's knowing there's a burglar on your property snooping around the home, but also ensuring they can't break into the physical premises. So we sat down and had a look how to do that so the first thing we focused on doors and windows throughout the home. 40% of burglaries in New Zealand are enabled through unlocked doors and windows, so we created a device which detects if any door or window is unlocked or open. Basically it helps initially ensure that homes are left secure while vacant, but it also helps ensure that households collaborate over home security and ensure positive security habits, so we are helping existing security companies and existing security systems and smarthome systems to focus on preventative security, so they bring our device into their system and that helps them secure doors and windows throughout the home and they focus on other aspects of the security system and further. 

Often the smartphone is seen as the remote control of modern life. Is this the device that allows your business to happen? You can check in on your house, you can see when the door has been opened, maybe in future, who knows, you've got a video camera there available to see what's happening in the house as well. 

For sure. There's a huge amount of smarthome systems out there and a lot of the big companies such as Samsung, Google and Apple are playing in this space. Their focus is on owning the platform, they own the app you have on your phone and you can control a whole lot of different functionalities throughout the home, and we're focused on helping those companies ensure they have the right sensors and technology to push that functionality. So yes, on the front of it, the smartphone is really the whole enabler. And the fact that nearly everyone has a smartphone in their pocket allows this sort of technology. 

Is that something you're concerned about, that there are huge companies like, as you mentioned Samsung and Google and others like Philips, who are heavily involved in this area and see this as maybe as the next frontier of their business to collect the data people are offering from their houses. Or is it an opportunity?

It's an opportunity. I guess those big brands playing in it creates a very competitive space, but it's also very fragmented because each one of those brands wants to own the whole platform that runs everything in the home. What it means is because they're all competing in the consumer-facing aspect of the smarthome, it allows us to get our foot in the door in the sense that we provide the unique functionality and something that they can market as a unique point of difference. When we go to the likes of Apple and Samsung and are talking to them, the lock-state detection in our device is something that's not currently on the market. And so that allows them when they package it up with their system to give them a unique point of difference and something unique to the consumer so that hopefully helps the onboarding process for them. 

So how did you get into this area? Was home security a fascination? Or was it something your skills led you towards? 

Myself and Anthony, my co-founder, were at University studying our Mechatronics and engineering degrees, and my flat was broken into. I was living with five other boys all doing engineering degrees and as students you're not the best at home security anyway and there were definitely burglars focusing on our area. I guess we were a little bit frustrated that our security system didn't do much to stop five laptops and three GoPros and a whole lot of high-value electronic items getting stolen. So we sat down and said 'look, there must be a way to ensure the home is at least secured'. So leveraging our existing skills we spent about four months coming up with a prototype of this current product that we've got, and we filed a few patents off the back of that and once we'd finished our degrees myself and Anthony went full-time and subsequently brought a few other people onboard to help as well. 

Wireless Guard's product, Hatch, which allows home automation and security systems to detect if doors and windows are unlocked or open. 
So you've presumably seen the numbers around startups. Approximately 90% of them fail. That's a bit of a portfolio approach, I guess, but you have to either be a bit mad or supremely optimistic or both, probably, to get into this. Does that characterise you guys? And what other character traits help when it comes to being a successful entrepreneur?

I guess the great thing for us is that we're young guys just out of University so we don't really have that much to lose. I guess it's a huge advantage for us and it means that at our life stage that we're very well suited to this sort of lifestyle and this sort of risk, but yes, definitely, you've just got to make sure that you've got good market fit and you've got some good partners and you're bringing good advisors on board. You try as much as you can to increase those odds. Yes, it's always a risk and it's something you've just got to live with.

Presumably being involved with Vodafone Xone has increased the odds.

Yes, I think it's a pretty unique opportunity really to be able to get backing by a large corporate before you've actually got a product to market and before you're allowed to company and partner with the commission. So effectively what Xone allows us to do is jump into the ecosystem, work with their personnel inside the company to help navigate our product to market. Hopefully it's a positive outcome.

How has that changed the way that your business has operated since having a mentor attached?

I've tried to ensure that our business doesn't change for Vodafone. We're definitely an independent company and we've got other partners that aren't anything to do with Vodafone. It helps us really understand all the aspects of the domestic market. And just the access we get throughout Vodafone. Wwe can talk to so many people within Vodafone and they've bought into the whole Xone idea and all the companies within Xone, so it makes this whole process a lot easier.

What or who keeps you going? What's the big goal with Wireless Guard?

I think just everyone who works at the company is pretty keen on innovating and doing new things and it's not really too many other places that you get that opportunity. Everyone's pretty free to have a voice in the company and kind of help navigate where we go and where the products go and what have you. I think that freedom, not only with myself, but everything else in the company is what gets you out of bed.

That sector is obviously advancing pretty rapidly, like many other sectors, but maybe looking into the crystal ball for a minute, where do you see smart home technology and automation going? Robot guard dogs?

Yes, I guess we're trying to be the guard dog of future, effectively right, we're trying to be the preventative aspect. No longer do you want the Great Dane sitting in the front yard. You've got a Wireless Guard or a Vodafone system or some sort of system powered by Wireless Guard to help prevent anyone getting into the property. I think natural language processing technology is going to really advance the smart home. The user interface smart home is currently a tablet or a mobile phone or the TV but that will actually disappear and will actually just be your voice so you'll just talk to smart home and it will be far superior to Siri or any of the other kind of current platforms.

Joining me now is Nicole Buisson, the head of Vodafone Xone. What's impressed you about the idea or they way that they've developed their idea?

I think firstly it's really exciting to have a smart home company that's based in New Zealand. A lot of the global players such as Samsung and Apple are playing in this space, so it's great to have something that's homegrown. Also they've been really clever, Wireless Guard, at surrounding themselves with mentors to advise them. These guys have come straight out of the University of Canterbury and they've been very clever at leveraging their connections that they've gained through UC Innovators, which is a programme run by a lady called Rachel Wright down at University of Canterbury. They've been very clever at leveraging those connections to sort of get advisors and build their business.

Is this something you see as a product that Vodafone could take into its own family to then bring some of those technologies to the New Zealand market that maybe don't exist at the moment?

Yes, absolutely. This is an area that we're very interested in at Vodafone and I think the challenge for Wireless Guard at this point in time is to work out is their product something that could be sold as a standalone, or is it part of a broader connected home or smart home solution? Should their product be part of a solution that includes other things, like the ability to control your lights, or your heating. Turn it on on the way home from the bach that kind of thing.

What lessons are there for other innovators from this story?

One of the things that these guys have done is they've leveraged again their relationships with the University to gain equipment at no extra cost, they've come to us at Vodafone for some funding and things like that, so they've done a really good job of bootstrapping without having to take funding so far. Not to say that they wouldn't take it from somewhere else going forward, but that's something that they've done really well.