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An Ecobee smart thermostat

The clean technology startup that brought WiFi thermostats to life is hoping to reach more homes across North America after securing $35-million in funding led by Toronto's Thomvest Asset Management Inc., with participation from Amazon's Alexa Fund and Toronto's Relay Ventures.

Toronto-based Ecobee, founded in 2007, touts itself as having introduced the first smart WiFi thermostat on the market. Ecobee thermostats are controlled through a Web portal and an app available for iOS, Android and the Apple Watch, and can include up to 32 remote sensors, so users can change the temperature based on the rooms they are in.

According to research firm NPD Group, Ecobee is the second-most popular smart thermostat in the United States (where the company sells the majority of its products) with a 24-per-cent market share, behind Nest, a thermostat company that was purchased by Google in 2014 for $3.2-billion (U.S.).

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Ecobee's CEO, Stuart Lombard – who was previously a partner at Relay Ventures – said the $35-million (Canadian) investment will go toward innovating the company's product, improving customer experience and growing the brand's position in the market.

The company plans to add 100 employees to its current staff of about 150.

Mr. Lombard said part of what makes Ecobee different from its competitors is that the system uses remote sensors to address the problem of hot or cold spots in the home. While he acknowledged that adjusting temperatures based on sensors in specific rooms might be less efficient at times – for example, turning on cooling for an entire home when a customer is in one room – he said the net result is that the Ecobee system is more energy efficient. According to Mr. Lombard, Ecobee saves consumers an average of 23 per cent on household heating and cooling bills.

A key part of his growth strategy includes partnering Ecobee with high-tech home automation systems, including Apple's HomeKit and Amazon Echo, which uses the company's Alexa voice-activated artificial intelligence program. These smart home technologies allow users to control such things as lighting, appliances, security, heating and cooling using the Internet.

Ecobee was the first WiFi thermostat system to be compatible with Amazon Echo, which is not yet available in Canada. The investment from the Alexa Fund – the largest payout made by the $100-million (U.S.) venture fund to date – was a natural fit for the fund, given that it focuses on investments in the field of voice technology, said Doug Booms, vice-president of corporate development at Amazon.

"Our goal with the Alexa Fund is to fuel voice technology innovation and to enable companies building on Alexa or integrating Alexa into their products," Mr. Booms said in an e-mailed statement. "We want Ecobee to have the resources required to continue its mission and also to invent further compelling connected home technologies."

Mr. Lombard said that about one-third of Ecobee consumers have their devices connected through the Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo, Apple's HomeKit or Samsung's version, SmartThings.

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He said Ecobee's key demographic comprises people looking to save money on their heating and cooling bills. Ecobee, which sells for about $300 (Canadian), can save that much in about 12 to 18 months on average, he said.

Naomi Manley-Casimir, managing director at the Accenture Innovation Centre for Utilities, said consumers are increasingly adopting smart technologies such as WiFi thermostats. She pointed specifically to millennials, who are 77 per cent more likely to be more satisfied if offered a monitoring device that provides energy-usage feedback, according to Accenture's New Energy Consumer research.

The same research found that 43 per cent of Canadian respondents anticipate they will have an interest in smart thermostats in the next five years, compared with 41 per cent in the United States

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