Nest Goes International with UK Smoke Detector Launch

Startup plans to make households smarter with line of designer gadgets

Nest, the Silicon Valley company that wants to transform quotidian household devices into beautiful, more intelligent gadgets, is coming to the UK. However, its first product here will not be a localised version of the programmable thermostat that it debuted earlier this year in the US and Canada, but a smoke detector.

Palo Alto-based Nest is led by folks who worked at designer technology firms like Apple, Philips and Logitech, but also non-tech companies like Levi Strauss. In other words, the sort of consumer brands that “create desire”, and build “delighters” or features that thrill buyers, says business VP Erik Charlton.

Nest won’t provide sales details on the Learning Thermostat product, now in its second iteration, but says the company has grown rapidly (since inception in 2010) to employ 270 staff and it now sells in 5,400 locations in the US and Canada. The Learning Thermostat saves users money by intelligently sensing optimal operating parameters. Differences in line voltage and boiler designs mean that we will have to wait until 2014 for localised versions although Nest says that enthusiasts have already hacked their own (not recommended) workarounds in over 90 countries.

Charlton says that Nest’s broader mission is to reinvent “unloved, essential products… the yellowing pieces of plastic around the home”. The company has certainly generated plenty of interest and 96% of Learning Thermostat buyers say they would recommend the product, the company claims.

Called Protect, the new smoke detector is a rather lovely white or black (that Apple DNA again) saucer-shaped box with glowing lights and Siri-like voice feedback. It’s designed to address the frustrations of detectors today with their false alarms, dead batteries and general poor usability.

“It’s an important safety product that people remove because it drives them crazy,” Charlton says. “80% of the population has one, but in one in eight cases where the fire service has been called out, smoke detectors have failed to work.”

Protect is to the cheap and freebie smoke detectors most of us use what a Porsche is to a jalopy. It detects carbon monoxide, has a photoelectric smoke sensor, heat sensor and can detect humidity and movement. A local-accent voice provides status information, including location of any suspected incident, and advice. Users can turn off warnings via a waving gesture so the traditional problem of bread-stuck-in-toaster causing a waling siren is allayed. The device self-tests every 10 minutes to check it’s in full working order and settings can be checked on the web or via iOS and Android apps.

Protect will be available from Amazon, John Lewis and Apple Stores in the UK from 15 November in wired and battery versions. At £109 it’s not cheap but Nest thinks the detector market is three times that of the thermostat segment and hopes it will appeal to parents of young families with a penchant for design and technology. Certainly, Apple and others have shown that people will pay a premium for design, cachet and the ‘mmm’ factor.

Nest is rather secretive. It won’t disclose revenues or even give a figure for how much it has raised in VC. Product plans remain similarly opaque but you can imagine Nest doing the same trick for baby monitors, utility meters, air-conditioning systems, lighting controls and so on. Also, Nest recently opened up its API so expect a community of hacks and value-added features from third-party developers.

The pervasive, universal fondness for good design and cute, geeky features is likely to make Nest a company to watch.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect