A Smart Solution for Thermostat Wars

three men standing confidently together, two in Hibersense branded t-shirtsThe arrival of warm weather brings new energy to a perennial debate: What’s a comfortable indoor temperature?

Federal recommendations for offices say it’s between 68 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, but one size doesn’t fit all.

As air conditioners begin blowing icy cold, some colleagues cheer while others curse and don cardigans or fire up energy-wasting space heaters beneath their desks. In fall, it’s the reverse as some turn on fans or crack open nearby windows to mitigate too-warm indoor air.

Regardless of the season, it’s a struggle that can raise tempers to the boiling point.

As a student living in a drafty off-campus apartment, Pitt engineering student Jacob Kring knew all too well the need for better indoor climate control.

His fortunate housemate — the one whose room housed the lone thermostat — slept in toasty comfort while Kring and his other roomies shivered through much of the school year in puffy coats. Raising the thermostat enough to warm the far reaches of their three-bedroom space resulted in a heating bill that exceeded his share of the rent.

a display of the HiberSense screen, which includes multiple labeled boxes for rooms and temperaturesElsewhere in the city, computer science professor Daniel Mossé had his own troubles with negotiating an efficient, yet comfortable indoor temperature. Mossé, a native of Brazil, prefers a more tropical 70 degrees Fahrenheit indoors; his Pittsburgh-born daughter is more comfortable at 65 degrees.

Mossé had been contemplating a solution, and when he presented the Jetsons-style smart home concept to his senior design class at Pitt, Kring easily identified with the problem that needed solving. He and engineering classmate Brendan Quay teamed up and went to work on the initial design.

In a subsequent entrepreneurship course designed to prepare students to develop a business idea from concept through incorporation, Quay based his class project on the same smart home concept.

“It was interesting and we had a business idea that was something potentially really big,” he said.

As for incorporating, “We ultimately actually did.”  

Mossé, Kring and Quay founded HiberSense around their internet-of-things climate control innovation: a smart heating and cooling system that collects data on temperature, humidity, occupancy and air-quality and “learns” using predictive analytics to anticipate the desired temperature room by room.

Users can set their preferences for each room using a mobile app. Wireless battery-operated smart vents controlled by a central hub automatically open and close to provide heating, cooling or fresh air where needed.

The system can be retrofitted easily in existing buildings or installed in new construction. Comfort is the main selling point, although optimizing heating and cooling often saves energy as well.

a silver air duct with a fancy-designed grate over top of the output spot

Powered by Pitt innovation pathways

With support from the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute’s student entrepreneurship programming, these two 2015 Swanson School of Engineering grads were set on a career path they hadn’t envisioned: heading their own startup right out of college.

Pittsburgh-based HiberSense now has six full-time employees and a handful of part-timers — and the company is growing under Kring, its chief executive officer, and Quay, its chief technology officer.

Kring, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, wanted to follow in their footsteps, but didn’t expect to step into their world so soon. “I expected first to be working at a regular job, then moving on to my own company,” he said.

“From a young age I liked software and computer science and the idea of applying technology to real-world problems,” he said.

“Being able to jump in and get my hands on a bunch of things to try and to learn has been awesome for me.”

Said Quay: “As a startup, all you can think about is making things better. You touch so many different areas of a company: pitching for investment capital, working with customers, learning what they do and don’t like — all to further develop the product. I wear a lot of hats and that’s one of the best parts.”

Pitt’s Innovation Institute programming played a key role in helping these budding entrepreneurs develop their skills and advance their idea.

Early in the project’s development, Kring and Quay entered the 2015 Randall Family Big Idea Competition for student innovations, landing a $5,000 third-place prize.

I expected first to be working at a regular job, then moving on to my own company.

Brendan Quay on the speedy success of HiberSense

They subsequently learned more about the potential market for their innovation as part of Pitt’s Blast Furnace student accelerator program, where theirs was the top pitch.

“Through that process it began to dawn that this could actually be a company,” said Quay.

He’d interned at the National Security Agency and expected to  find a corporate or government job after graduation but the Big Idea experience opened his eyes to another possibility. “I began to realize, ‘I think this is maybe what I want to do,’” he said.

“The Big Idea was a catalyst,” agreed Kring. “With the validation of this prize money, we started taking it even more seriously.”

Their participation drew the attention of the director of the Pittsburgh-based AlphaLab Gear accelerator, who encouraged them to apply.

After completing the program there, HiberSense in April 2018 opened its own office on Pittsburgh’s South Side. The company now is closing in on its current goal of recruiting its first 100 customers — mainly HVAC contractors, builders, developers and apartment complex managers.

These young partners have found their place in Pittsburgh’s expanding startup community and have stayed connected to their roots as part of a growing support network for today’s Pitt’s student entrepreneurs.

“There has been opportunity to mentor others and talk about our own path,” said Kring, noting that they’ve coached Big Idea participants and judged the annual competition.

“We're still connected with the people who guided and supported us,” said Quay. “We’re a part of the ecosystem.”