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Dust joins effort to boost energy efficiency

logo_dust.gifHere's the latest Bay Area company trying to help boost energy efficiency -- and make money, too, of course.

Dust has just raised has raised $22 million from a number of investors, led by Crescendo Ventures, according to a number of news outlets today. Cargill Ventures, Foundation Capital and Institutional Venture Partners also participated. In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, is a previous investor.

According to a VentureWire story (subscription required), Dust Networks is:

"...working with DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in Berkeley, Calif., and SVA Lighting USA Inc. to develop energy-saving, sensor-based lighting systems for homes and businesses that can be installed wirelessly. That would save on the cost of replacing old systems with the new, energy-conserving ones."

For our story about Dust last year, see extended entry.


Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2004 Edition: Morning Final Section: Business Page: 1C

Illustration: Photos (3)

Source: BY MATT MARSHALL, Mercury News

Imagine swarms of tiny sensors sitting in your office, seeing, listening and maybe even smelling everything that goes on around you.
Such ''smart dust'' sensors are under development by start-ups like Dust of Berkeley, to be used in everything from heightening security in offices to observing enemy troop movements. Dust plans to announce today that the CIA's venture branch, In-Q-Tel, and two other investors have invested $7 million to help it in its quest.

Dust is one of the leading makers of ''smart dust,'' or miniature sensors that measure heat and vibration, analyze chemical compounds and observe surrounding movement. ''Smart dust'' is a niche in the hot ''radio frequency identification'' industry, where a slew of companies are racing to developversions of a technology that uses wireless sensing to track movements and products.

Dust, which employs 27 people, is battling stiff competition from an emerging group of start-ups focused on the smart-dust market.

With smart dust, sensors are packed in a tiny box together with a small chip, a battery and a radio -- and use these components to pass along data to other boxes that lie nearby in a so-called ''mesh network.'' Each of them also communicates wirelessly with a central network platform.

Dust has focused so far on helping the military to do things like observe enemy troop movements. But soon it and others want to sell swarms of these tiny sensors to big corporations to observe energy usage, monitor for security and do things we don't even know about yet -- which is when privacy implications might come in.

Dust wants companies and military agencies to buy the $20-odd sensors (the price isn't set, but will come down as they're produced in quantity) in big batches.

''This is going to spring open a whole new category of possibilities,'' said Paul Koontz, of Foundation Capital, which led the investment. He was joined by In-Q-Tel and venture firm IVP.

Kris Pister, chief executive of Dust, has spent 10 years working to create the miniature sensors, and has shrunk them to about matchbox size.

In the next year or two, he wants to shrink them to the size of a bottle cap or aspirin. Bulky batteries are limiting the progress.

Government support

Dust has already announced it has six contracts with the government that will unfold over the next two years.

The CIA's backing will help Dust in its competition with two other venture-backed rivals, Ember and Millenial Net, both of Boston.

Pister and his backers say Dust's competitive advantage is its heritage -- more than 10 years of research at University of California-Berkeley labs. Pister led a Berkeley project, launched in 1997, that aimed to build a sensing and communication package within a cubic-millimeter-size device, coined smart dust.

Pister left a year ago to build Dust and market the technology. The company already has revenue but won't be profitable for at least a year.

Pister's goal was to miniaturize the sensor -- he got it down to 5 cubic millimeters at the lab. He also focused on using the lowest power sources, which is what gives Dust an edge, Pister says.

Pister says most buildings use from 5 percent to 50 percent more energy for heating than necessary. Sensors can help create efficiency by helping companies measure their heat usage during peak pricing periods, or detect when compressors break down.

''This can help have a direct impact on the number of power plants we build,'' he said, citing the state's power shortages.

Open-source movement

Still, Dust has plenty of work to do before making its proprietary product a standard. Many UC-Berkeley researchers have stayed at the lab, and have joined a wider effort -- including other companies -- to develop an ''open-source'' version of the technology, one that can be shared by other users.

Dust may have to eventually compete with a new network standard, 802.15.4, designed for wireless sensor networks -- which offers longer range and higher data capabilities.

Santa Clara chip giant Intel also continues to research smart dust, and supports the open-source movement, according to David Culler, a computer scientist at UC-Berkeley and former director of the Intel Research Berkeley lab, who now has no company affiliation. Culler wrote TinyOS, a popular open-source software program for these networks now being used by more than 300 groups. Part of Intel's interest lies in the vast amounts of information likely to be transported by such sensors, data that will require processing by the kind of chips Intel manufactures.

Intel invested in San Jose's Crossbow Technology, which licenses the UC-Berkeley technology, and manufactures sensors for companies. Other playersinclude Sensicast, of Needham, Mass., which is pursuing a mixed proprietary and open-source strategy, according to Culler; Digital Sun, of San Jose, which is developing systems that know when a lawn needs water; and San Diego's Sensoria, which has focused on the automotive sector.

'Different players'

It is encouraging that venture money is flowing to companies like Dust, Culler said. However, there are a lot of companies competing on different standards: ''There are a lot of players,'' he said.

One early company, Graviton, imploded. Backed by In-Q-Tel and well-known venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, it sought to make wireless sensors to monitor remotely things like security cameras and baggage-checking machines in airports. However, its focus was too broad, and it failed to turn the technology into a workable product, according to Rick Kriss, chief executive of Xsilogy, a radio-frequency company that bought Graviton's assets.


NAME: Dust

LOCATION: Berkeley

PRODUCT: ''Smart dust,'' miniature sensors that measure heat and vibration and analyze chemical compounds to observe surrounding movement, using radio frequency identification technology.

USES: Military use such as observing enemy troop movement. Security use by monitoring office buildings. Energy savings by tracking heat usage and detecting when compressors break down. Other companies and projects have used such sensors for irrigation systems that know when a lawn needs water, and tracking the spread of wildfires.

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