How Joplin Tornadoes Inspired Two Entrepreneurs

In addition to voicing smoke, fire and carbon monoxide warnings, an upgraded version of the device includes a radio chip that rebroadcasts weather alerts.

by Celeste Smith, The Charlotte Observer / May 26, 2016
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(TNS) - A deadly tornado outbreak inspired two Charlotte-area entrepreneurs to create an Internet-connected home alarm system that warns of bad weather — and can also tell you if you left the refrigerator door open.

It’s the Halo, developed by Ben Stagg, 36, and Chad White, 43, through their company, Halo Smart Labs. When activated, the LED lights go on, creating a halo on the ceiling.

In addition to voicing smoke, fire and carbon monoxide warnings, an upgraded version of the device includes a radio chip that rebroadcasts weather alerts.

And it’s all connected to the Internet, so homeowners can receive the warnings on a smart device, and Halos in the same home can talk to each other.

That’s the part that has Stagg and White particularly excited. Tapping into the so-called Internet of Things realm, where household appliances can talk to each other, leads to other uses for their device.

Already, Halo syncs with Iris, the smart-home management system from Lowe’s Inc. So the warning system can voice what Iris detects, from leaky pipes to that freezer door left ajar.

Their goal is for the device to be compatible with other home management systems once it’s released, possibly this fall. It’s now in testing with the safety and certification group Underwriters Laboratories.

Halo is the first product launch for White’s and Stagg’s home-safety products company. Halo Smart Labs, which started in 2014, has its roots in the duo’s 2013 contest win of $25,000 from the Innovation Fund of North Carolina.

Inspiration for their product came from Stagg’s family connection to the devastating tornadoes that touched down in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, resulting in nearly 160 deaths.

Stagg recounts how just before the tornadoes touched down, his father, living in the area, walked past a barn on his property when he heard the weather alarm sound on a radio.

His father and stepmother told Stagg later that they barely made it to a neighbor’s storm shelter, about a half-mile away. By then, winds were so intense that they couldn’t even close the storm doors.

Later, news reports noted that poor communication was a factor in the high death toll, with some not hearing sirens or other warnings.

The randomness of it all haunted Stagg.

“To hear him so shaken as he described his version of what happened … ” he says.

“How is ‘I didn’t know’ still a reason that people die in any given event?”

Weather-alert fatigue is real, especially in disaster-prone areas, where predictions of dangerous storms don’t always pan out, he says.

Battery-powered radio units may wind up tucked away in a tornado kit. Electric radios need a plug that some would rather use for a coffee machine.

But smoke alarms are hardwired in the home. And people are used to getting emergency information that way.

By this time, Stagg and White were already business partners and friends, having met in 2003 when White invested in Stagg’s digital signage company in Canton, Ohio. Although they both were in other jobs — Stagg for a digital signage company in Charlotte, and White in Phoenix — they were still looking for a tech idea to work on together.

When Joplin happened, the idea came up to create a weather alert system through a fire alarm.

“We couldn’t not do it,” Stagg says. “We couldn’t be the guys that had an idea, concept and plan that could ultimately result in saving lives, and have it die on the shelf because we were comfortable with other positions.”

Here’s how the labs team describes the device: A radio chip in the alarm rebroadcasts weather signals. Through the Internet, users can filter which type of alerts they hear, such as warnings, or higher. When that happens, a voice notification comes through the alarm’s speaker with the actual message from the National Weather Service and the LED lights activate.

When it comes to home fires, the alarm’s technology can detect early smoke, carbon monoxide, as well as fast- or slow-burning fires, according to the makers. That version is expected to sell for $100, while the detector that includes weather alerts will go for about $129.

Stagg says the company has raised $2.2 million in funding since 2013.

They lease an 8,000-square-foot manufacturing and office space, where a team of 15 full-timers and three contractors work on the alarm, and about 15 other life-safety products in the pipeline, according to the company.

A 3-D printer helps take ideas to prototypes, and robotic and manual assembly stations load circuit boards with tiny parts that make the Halo go. Alarms are mass-manufactured at a plant in North Carolina, Stagg says.

Their local, do-it-yourself approach gives them an edge over bigger companies, Stagg says.

It caught the attention of Lowe’s, which announced in January at the annual CES gadget show in Las Vegas that it’s integrating Halo with its Iris system later this year, giving users of both technologies more options.

He notes, too, that connecting the alarm with other home happenings — from doors opening to setting the thermostat — may not be for everyone. After all, the whole point of their device is to avoid alarm fatigue.

Users may not want to hear about the dishwasher being done, or that the dog ran away, or that the kids are off the school bus, Stagg says. “Just tell me if there’s a fire.”

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