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Nest's next challenge: make fire detectors sexy

11:14 AM, Oct 8, 2013   |    comments
Nest Labs' new fire detector(Photo: Nest Labs)
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PALO ALTO, Calif. (USA TODAY) - Nest Labs, a startup founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, unveiled a fire detector called Nest Protect Tuesday, attacking a market it reckons is about four times the size of the thermostat market it entered two years ago.

The new device is a fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detector that talks to you, lights your way down dark corridors and gives you a heads-up before setting off a piercing alarm.

The device lets users wave to stop the alarm before it starts - for instance, if someone has opened an oven and let out smoke but there's no fire risk.

If multiple detectors are installed in a home, they communicate wirelessly with each other. At bedtime, a circle at the center of the device glows green to show there is no fire danger in the house.

Nest Protect even has a humidity sensor, which Nest hopes will be used in the future to detect the difference between smoke and steam.

This is the next step in what Fadell, 44, and Rogers, 30, hope is a long line of Nest products that turn previously boring, annoying home gadgets into desirable devices - similar to the iPods and iPhones the two designed at Apple.

"We are focusing on unloved, ugly, dumb, plastic boxes that have had no innovation for years," Rogers said.

About two years ago, Nest launched a circular, brushed metal thermostat that connects wirelessly to the Internet. The new Protect device will connect to existing Nest thermostats. For instance, if it detects carbon monoxide, it will contact the thermostat, which will automatically switch off your furnace.

However, Rogers played down the idea that Nest plans to automate homes in the future by connecting all its devices into one over-arching operating system.

"It's less about automation and more about the re-invention of unloved gadgets," he said. "Our goal is to build all these gadgets and only connect them if it makes sense."

Soon after the Nest thermostat came out, Fadell and Rogers decided to develop a new type of fire detector, partly because the market for these devices is so large.

"It's four times the size of the thermostat market and homes are required by law to have several of them," Rogers said. "There's an enormous business case for this."

Some of Silicon Valley's top venture capital firms agree. Nest was backed by firms including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures and Al Gore's investment fund Generation Capital. In January, the company raised $80 million at an $800 million valuation, in a round led by Google Ventures, according to GigaOM.

"We're doing pretty well. It's been a good year," said Rogers, while declining to comment on funding or whether Nest is making money.

Rogers would not discuss sales either. However, the Nest is the top-selling thermostat on Amazon.com. The company also shared a map of the U.S., showing Nest thermostat installations as of Oct. 4 and the dots cover large areas of the Northeast, Illinois, Florida, Texas, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nest's thermostat has been installed in more than 90 countries - even though the company has only sold the device in the U.S. and Canada so far.

The company is tapping into that demand by launching a new version of its thermostat in the U.K. The new Nest Protect detector will also be sold in the U.K.

In the U.S., the Nest Protect will cost $129 and come in black or white. The company expects the device will be available in November, pending testing.

Nest has almost 300 employees, up from about 100 two years ago when the company launched the Nest thermostat. The company has also been accumulating patents and has about 200 of them now to help defend it from legal challenges as it designs and launches new products for the home.

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