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2 years, 1 month ago #MakerMonday with Damon Hart-Davis

From banking in the City to IoT startup, Damon shares his journey, tells us how we can reduce our carbon footprint and save money using his retrofit thermostat

With a background in computing, Damon setup one of the UK’s first Internet Service Providers, took and a sidestep and worked in banking for more than twenty years, then, created an Open-Source Thermostatic Radiator Valve, otherwise known as OpenTRV.   OpenTRV aims to make it easy for you to save energy by only heating rooms that you're using and no longer using a single thermostat to heat your house. We caught up with Damon to see what’s next and talk about the future of smart cities.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I’m a techie. My dad got me interested in electronics as a kid and then I migrated to computing. We couldn’t afford to rent 8 kilobytes of RAM for a PET, so we waited and eventually bought a Sharp MZ80K, then much later a Spectrum and a BBC Micro, and I fought the school’s shiny new RML 380Z somewhere in the middle of all of that.

The energy bug bit me in 2007, when I suddenly realised that I could optimise my energy use in the same way that I optimised code for my City clients, and while adding two children to my family, cut our energy use by about a factor of three.  With the PV on our roof we’re slightly carbon negative for energy.

Q: What’s the story of OpenTRV? What are you aiming to achieve?

A: I exchanged a number of emails with Prof David MacKay in the run up to his Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air book  and ended up leading a DECC discussion on “smart” domestic heating at the end of 2013.  It was clear to me that there was a gap in the market for something open, cheap and extensible that was combining zoning and occupancy sensing. Thus the OpenTRV open source project was born in Jan 2013, and about a year later, OpenTRV Limited arrived with funding and support from Climate-KIC’s accelerator programme.

Our core offering is a smart radiator valve that automatically cuts the heat from your radiators when you’re not around so you don’t to remember to, saving you as much as 40% of your gas bill, and paying back your investment in a single heating season. No bling, no need for an instruction manual, smartphone or Internet connection.

Q: You’ve been on quite a journey with Open TRV, including competitions, exhibitions and presentations, tell us about your experiences and the toughest challenge you’ve faced.

A: This is not the first start-up that I’ve been involved in, but I have to say that this is easily the most fun environment for getting something off the ground that I’ve seen in 30 years.

I’ll turn up at events to help get the OpenTRV message out: half the money you’re spending on heating your home is probably wasted and if we fixed that we could knock 10% off the UK’s carbon footprint and £300 off your winter gas bills.

I was dead chuffed when OpenTRV won a prize at Connecting Homes in late 2013, and even more so to gain Mark, my business partner there. We aim to be at shows or events or giving talks once or twice a month, and the networking is fantastic. Even today we had a really excellent meeting with a potential investor that came from having a stand at a show a few weeks ago. The Climate-KIC accelerator has been a ball and there has been business help and coaching available in abundance from them and elsewhere. I was able to end my last City contract in October last year, and Mark did so at the start of this year.

The toughest challenge? For me, this is my first time with a real CEO hat on, not CTO.  That means that the buck stops with me, *and* I have to remember that I’m not the person with all the answers.

Q: You’ve been working lately on making Smart Cities more environmentally friendly, tell us about what you’ve been working on.

A: If you can measure, you can manage, and the Internet of Things at its best is about helping manage resources better, for example, reducing energy waste (as with the OpenTRV radiator valve), or allowing a bus operator to know how many people are waiting at bus stops in order to be able to dispatch the right number of vehicles thus saving on fuel and air pollution. Our IoT Launchpad project, with Innovate UK funding, is about live footfall tracking at bus shelters and about healthy buildings. Improving the environment one ATMega at a time.

It’s industrial research, and we very much welcome wide participation to make IoT projects cheaper and easier to deploy, and secure.

Q: Nesta just released a reporton Smart Cities and suggestions about how we should be doing less top down and more ground up innovation, what are your thoughts on that? 

A: Pragmatically, you need a mixture, with ministers and people on the Clapham Omnibus giving one another permission to be bold and DoTheRightThing(TM). Nesta’s full of smart people and I’m always interested in what it has to say.

Q: What do you think the future of our cities looks like?

A: I hope cleaner, greener, quieter and with better air, and with some IoT smarts quietly making life better from better public transport to increasingly precise weather forecasts. 

Q: Bodies like Tech City UK and other organisations are constantly trying to bridge the gap between small and large companies, with your experience in corporations and with startups, what do you think they have to learn from each other?

A: Big companies can be amazingly crass with some things and good with others, for example, in my experience inside them for twenty plus years, banks are often terrible with money whereas BP, the oil company, was great with it.  For the things they are good at, including strategy and the long view, big companies can act as universities and mentors for the small ones (but must also to remember to pay the small ones on time!).  Equally, the small ones often have ideas and innovation that the big ones stifle with inertia and desk politics. 

Q: Throughout your time making and creating, you’ve seen the rise of the Internet of Things, how has this recent revolution influenced the way you work?

A: The technology that I’m aiming to put on every one of Europe’s 500 million radiators over the next 30 years, is pretty much equivalent to what I was trying to put into a toy robot with two of the world’s biggest brands 30 years ago, but at fraction of the cost and space, and maybe a millionth of the power. That’s a revolution in what you can measure, and I think that IoT devices should go on getting smaller and cheaper and able to run off harvested energy; real fit-and-forget stuff. 

Q: Finally, what’s your favourite hack at the moment?

A: Apart from all the fantastic beyond-the-plan science we’re doing in space right now? The fact that Unix variants have taken over the world?  What about the fact that Arduino and free worldwide video calling exist? All of those were science fiction when I was a lad growing up in Yorkshire!

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