Now wash your hands10 July 2019 | Facts & Curiosities
“I have an announcement. Somebody in this office didn’t wash their hands after they used the bathroom”, Krystian announced. A few chuckles broke out, a little ripple of applause; a few slapped backs. It was a funny thing to announce to an office floor, but for our little team, it was a milestone moment. We had started to manufacture order from chaos.
When Hero Labs founder Krystian Zajac first came to the UK, he was living in a tiny flat with five other people, washing dishes for a living and spending £10 a week on food. Little did he know, within a few short years he would be jetting around the globe, rubbing shoulders with billionaires and delivering multi-million-pound luxury technology projects for some of the most discerning clients in the world.
This is the story of how Hero Labs came to be, and of how we went from billionaire’s ballrooms to basement stop taps in our search to use smart home technology to do good. It’s also the story of why we were pleased to learn that someone was too preoccupied with their code to wash their hands that afternoon in London.
Every hero needs an origin story, and this is ours. We hope you enjoy it.
The year was 2001, and the first Apple store had just opened in California. Android wouldn’t appear on the scene for another half a decade, and neither would Facebook or Twitter or Gmail or 3G internet. Google hadn’t yet dreamed of hardware and Alexa was still just an obscure girl’s name. The turn of the millennium had come and gone; the millennium bug had not destroyed Western civilisation after all, but the world was definitely changing. Computers were moving from a curiosity to a necessity and everyone from bookshops to barristers was wondering if they needed to register a dotcom. Hero Labs founder Krystian Zajac was in London, attempting to carve out a connected business of his own: a smart home company called Andrew Lucas.
The smart home of the early 2000’s looked very different from the matchbox-sized hubs and sleek smart speakers of 2019. It came in towering 19-inch equipment racks that took up entire rooms in your house. Wireless technology was still in its infancy and smart homes relied on miles upon miles of “structured cabling” instead, hidden away in the walls and ceilings of the home. Clients often moved out for six months or more while engineers swarmed over their property, cutting holes and pulling cables. The iPad wouldn’t be released for another 9 years, so to be able to control lighting, heating or AV systems from a glowing touch-panel in the wall was nothing short of science fiction. It came with a lofty price-tag to match, and clients rarely saw change from a quarter of a million pounds.
Andrew Lucas specialised in the top end of an already exclusive market. Everything was stage-managed and impeccably executed; nothing was too outrageous. 48-channel cinemas that converted into underground bunkers with their own power, water and internet supplies. Huge TVs that retracted invisibly into furniture at the press of a button. Biometric scanners with silent alarms programmed to certain fingers. 10-foot-high digital fireplaces hidden behind one-way mirrors. A motorised dance floor that transformed into a swimming pool at the flick of a switch. Even a castle-like mansion perched on a Swiss mountain top, complete with its own ski chute and private chair lift. James Bond himself might have been shaken and stirred. Andrew Lucas went from strength to strength, but there was a problem.
Start With Why
“We weren’t really helping anyone”, Krystian remembers. “We weren’t really changing anyone’s life. Don’t take me wrong – it was an incredible, exciting time; we were right on the bleeding edge of what was possible in the home technology space. This is long before you could walk into a high street store and buy a smart lightbulb. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the people who would benefit the most from being able to automate their everyday lives were actually the people trying to hold down two jobs; get the kids to school on time, study in the evenings, burn the candle at both ends… And I thought: this isn’t going to mean anything until we can reach out and touch those guys.”
In 2015, more than a decade after we first automated a lightbulb, a few of us from Andrew Lucas got together to launch a new venture. Its codename was NOON, and its mission was to use smart home technology to actively protect ordinary people and their homes. It would take the same exotic, bleeding-edge technology that defined Andrew Lucas, and make it as affordable, intuitive and available as possible. We wanted almost anyone to be able to take smart home technology and put it to work improving their lives and protecting their homes.
So the miles of structured cable, the equipment racks and the year-long installation window were all gone. In their place were clean, wireless, battery-powered devices that could be deployed in sixty seconds. The richly consultative planning phases had been replaced by pre-configured kits, laser-focused on combatting the most common threats to people and property – fires, thefts and floods. And perhaps most radically, the price point was less than a thousandth of a traditional home automation system – thanks in part to these efficiencies, but also to an unlikely new alliance with one of the UK’s leading home insurers. We had stumbled upon a neat little synergy: if we could protect people and property from harm, we could also help insurers to drastically reduce their claims costs. As such, the insurers would willingly pick up part of the bill and even help us to promote the technology and get it into people’s homes. It was a genuine win-win situation.
The team recruited insurance expertise in the form of co-founder Matt Poll and launched to the public as Neos – literally, “new”, in ancient Greek. It was billed as a radical new take on home insurance, using smart home technology to actively protect customers and their homes as well as insuring them in the conventional sense. After a few quick years, the company was acquired by Aviva (the largest home insurer in the UK), and the core team found themselves free agents once more.
So it was 2018, and we were back at the whiteboard in a portioned-off section of the office. We knew we still wanted to make “technology for good”, and from working alongside home insurers we now had a wealth of real-world data on the problems that affected ordinary homeowners and their families on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps most surprisingly, we had learnt that water leaks are far and away the biggest cause of damage to homes in the UK – responsible for more damage than all house fires, gas explosions and burglaries combined. We knew we also wanted to do more for the environment in our next venture and were learning that water leaks waste 3 billion litres of water a day in the UK alone. So that’s where the idea for Hero Labs (and Sonic the loveable leak detector!) started to take shape – with one foot in the “anything’s possible” world of Andrew Lucas, and another rooted in the empirical data pool of insurance claims and “escape of water” statistics. We would use genuinely smart technology to protect people, property and the environment, and we would start by tackling something many people don’t even consider when securing their home: water leaks.
Now Wash Your Hands
Data science is hard. To quote Mitchell Kapor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “getting insight from data can be a bit like filling a glass of water from a riot hose”. It’s not always easy to fish the answers you need from the torrent of information rushing past you. It’s like a dot-to-dot drawing where none of the points are numbered, and you’ve got to try your hardest not to second-guess what the end picture might be. You’ve got to interpret without adding your own interpretive bias. You’ve got to make meaningful order from digital chaos, without shaping it to your idiosyncratic worldview. In other words, data science is hard.
Hero Labs didn’t have a website, but we did already have more than ten million separate data points. A little prototype of the smart water pipe that would one day become Sonic sat in a line on our incoming water supply in the basement of our London office; faithfully capturing around 80,000 data points a day. Flow rates, attack curves, sustain envelopes, pressure plots, temperature differentials, ultrasonic time-of-flight, timestamps and dates and durations. We had our riot hose, but making sense of it all was a whole other ball game.
“I have an announcement”, said Krystian. “One of you didn‘t wash your hands.” And there it was, on the display at the front of the office: our algorithm had filled its first glass.
“That was a real lightbulb moment for us” says Krystian. “If we can recognise toilets from flow data alone, then maybe we can recognise other water-drawing appliances… so suddenly we’re not just talking about leak detection anymore. Maybe we can categorise your water use by appliance, and show you which ones take the most water to run. That way whether you have a leak or not you get the insight to reduce your carbon footprint, or squeeze some money off your utility bill. We could help you to provide remote care to an elderly relative by checking if they’ve had a shower, been to the bathroom, washed their clothes recently. We could work with utility companies to provide street-level, property-level granularity for supply and demand of water – real smart-city stuff. We could start to build up a database of how likely each appliance is to leak and collaborate with home insurers or with review platforms like Which. It’s a very exciting time.”
Sonic by Hero Labs is due to launch in late 2019. To stay up to date with all the latest news, offers and competitions, join the waiting list today.