Interview with Julian Lee, founder of Ambi Climate, The smart add-on for your air conditioner.
Tell us how Ambi Climate. What inspired you to start it?
Ambi Climate was initially inspired by a relatively simple concept: how to keep my now 15-year old husky comfortable at home. He suffers from hot temperatures in the summer however it is expensive and non-environmentally friendly to run the AC 24/7. I was hoping for a smartphone-controlled interface to my home AC so that I could monitor and control the environment. Eventually I got our co-founders, Tim and Paul, involved, and Ambi Labs was born.
Together we built the initial prototype and put the concept in front of as many people as we could: our friends, family, even random strangers. We conducted interviews and distributed a survey to gather perspectives from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Eventually we had feedback from over 1,000 people.
What we found was that while people appreciate the ability to turn off their air conditioner from outside the home, a surprising number of people had more to say about issues controlling their AC. Some expressed frustration with maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the night, so they would fall asleep comfortable but wake up freezing cold. Others shared how 23C might feel too cold while 24C would feel too hot. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where weather can be a bit unpredictable, we had some respondents comment on how their AC couldn’t account for changing weather.
It became apparent to us that this was an opportunity to invert the AC paradigm and create something that would enable the AC to focus on comfort, rather than temperature control. We realized that the design of a traditional AC remote fixates on changing the temperature, but comfort is much more than just temperature. It can be affected by how much clothing you’re wearing, whether you just ate, the time of day. Additionally, if the AC unit itself is sensing temperature from one corner of the room, above or away from where the user sits, then it is not sensing the environment closest to you.
That’s where Ambi Climate is different than just a glorified smart remote. Ambi Climate learns your preferences to automatically adjust the air conditioner taking into account all of these factors, holistically. It gathers sensor data from your environment, including seasonal influences, time of day, activity levels, and other factors to balance comfort with energy consumption, thereby eliminating energy waste caused by overcooling. The result? Better comfort and greater energy savings.
What is your personal background?
I graduated from Imperial College London with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. Prior to founding Ambi Labs, I worked in strategy consulting and private equity, where I advised and invested in companies ranging from startups to listed multinationals, across a range of industries, including telecommunications, natural resources, electronics, biotech, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, insurance and agriculture.
How did you design and manufacture Ambi Climate?
We did a lot of research to ensure Ambi Climate had a user-focused design. We wanted to consider as many use cases as possible. Some of our users would be using Ambi Climate to prevent mould and humidity from damaging their holiday homes. Others would set it to keep temperate conditions in their baby’s room. We strove to design an app that would give users better, fine-grain control from setting the temperature to changing functions like fan speed or fan direction. We also wanted to give the end user greater insight into their AC usage so they could visualize which factors affect their comfort most, how often they use certain modes, and how long they run their AC for.
On the industrial design side, we wanted the form factor to blend into the user’s environment. We didn’t want it to stick out in an overtly “techy” way but seamlessly fade into the background, just as the AI does with your AC settings. We worked with a talented, award-winning industrial designer who helped us find the right balance between east and west, form and function. And underneath the hood, we married the design with an array of accurate sensors and powerful infrared transmitters so that you can place Ambi Climate almost anywhere in your room.
To build Ambi Climate, we tapped into the rich manufacturing ecosystem we get to enjoy here in the Pearl River Delta. As a hardware startup, we’re quite fortunate that Hong Kong is uniquely situated near one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs. The close proximity to our factory afforded us the opportunity to work closely and quickly with our factory in Dongguan. We were able to iterate on our early prototypes quickly, be involved in the testing and production, and develop a great relationship with our manufacturing team.
What were some of your biggest challenges in launching this business?
This type of AI-assisted, IoT device is hard to develop. We are pulling together firmware, software, industrial design, a mobile app, AI and UX. On top of this, we must simultaneously build a brand, market effectively, build our business operations and maintain our inventory and sales. As a relatively small team, we are always assessing our current constraints and with our long and short term objectives to discern how we can work most effectively.
Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign back in 2014. Did anything surprise you with your campaign? Any anecdotes to share in creating and running the Kickstarter campaign?
We did a great deal of preparation for our Kickstarter campaign so we were quite happy that we were able to reach funding in such a short amount of time. Behind any successful crowdfunding campaign is a lot of planning, organization, outreach and publicity. Our campaign ran for about a month and a half but we put an enormous work into planning it and once it was over, fulfilling all our orders. Crowdfunding itself is a microcosm of bringing your product to market and we learned a lot from the process.
The great thing about running a campaign is getting to know individuals who believe in your project and support your vision. Our early backers are still our current beta users and their feedback has been indispensible to the development of Ambi Climate. There were some challenges, however, including lack of resources and timing. For example, as a startup we were constrained to our own efforts in pulling off a successful campaign whereas other campaigns may have hired agencies to help them outsource publicity or customer support. Additionally due to the seasonal nature of our product, we wanted to run our campaign earlier in the year when the weather was hot but we ran into some roadblocks that delayed when we actually launched the campaign.
Can you share tips for those considering crowdfunding their project? What are some keys to making the campaign successful?
A few tips we think may be helpful to others considering crowdfunding:
- Research the right platform for you: there are a lot of options out there. You might find Kickstarter or Indiegogo are not the best suited for your particular project
- Have a good video: You’ll want to invest time and resources into a video that succinctly and convincingly explains your project.
- Building an audience happens beforehand: Make a landing page and drive eyes to it. You may find running Facebook ads is effective. Gather as many emails as you can and blast them leading up to your campaign launch. You need to draw people to your campaign for it to be successful, but this won’t happen overnight.
- We used tools like PressFriendly, Buzzstream, SumoMe and Mailchimp to run our campaign. It’s also helpful to research tools that can leverage your time and resources.
- Time your campaign: Launch on a Monday or Tuesday and ideally not June or December when there is less competition
- Test your page: get friends, family, strangers to read it and make sure message is clearly conveyed
What do you think of Hong Kong’s Startup Scene?
The Hong Kong Startup Scene is great. The community is very supportive of one another and we have been really grateful for the mutual support we have received from co-working spaces, other founders, accelerators and incubators. Not only have we learned a lot from other startups but we have also been able to share our own experiences in various settings, during events like RISE or Startmeup Week, or community gatherings like MakerHive. We’ve truly enjoyed these interactions on an individual and organizational level. For us, groups like WHub and Brinc, and other hardware startups such as Nanoleaf, Nixplay, Aumeo and Soundbrenner have been helpful sounding boards in a number of ways. We’ve also always been very appreciative of what individuals such as Casey Lau are doing to raise the bar in terms of high quality startup events and conferences, as well as drawing attention to the level of innovation coming from the HK startup community.
What’s next for Ambi Climate?
We’re excited to be shifting gears from pure product development to launching in a number of markets. Our goal is to successfully launch our brand in several Asian markets (Taiwan, Australia, Thailand, Japan) in the next twelve months.
In the meantime, product development will be ongoing as we are looking forward to releasing a range of new features and integrations.
What are 3 things you want consumers to remember about your company?
Our aim is to develop well-designed smart home products that are so intuitive that the technology fades into the background.
Our mission is to bridge the gap between outdated appliances and modern technology to make the modern home seamlessly comfortable and energy efficient.
We strive to make products users love.
Interview by Ludivine Lombard Taverne