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Sunday, Dec 10, 2023

Will Vizio’s Garden Grow Smart Sprinkler Startup?

A startup launched by two of Skype’s earliest employees with the backing of Vizio Inc. hopes to make its mark in the “Internet of Things” market with the debut of a smart lawn sprinkler at next month’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The company is called Blossom, and it has a round of seed funding in hand, thanks to a large Taiwanese manufacturer and Irvine-based consumer electronics brand Vizio, which has various other products and aims to be a full consumer electronics brand.

Blossom has another tie to Vizio, which is best known for its flat-screen TVs.

Vizio’s chief technology officer is cofounding chairman of the startup, which has set up its main office at the $3 billion-a-year company’s headquarters in the Irvine Spectrum.

The recent round of seed funding, the amount of which was undisclosed, coupled with an additional $102,000 investment from 840 Kickstarter backers, has Blossom positioned to start mass production of its smart lawn sprinkler controller in the next few months.

“We’re already talking to multiple channel partners that want to carry the product,” said Chief Executive Manrique Brenes, who honed his irrigation skills at his father’s Costa Rican farm before earning an MBA and master’s degree in science at the University of California-Davis.

The $179 device, which goes by the same name as the company, allows users to automate sprinkler systems through a Web browser or smartphone app. Powerline technology essentially turns electrical outlets into Internet connections, so there’s no need to replace existing garden water pipes, which have relied on timers and little technological advancement since their introduction about 45 years ago.

Real-Time Weather Data

The small box controller uses cloud computing to access and analyze real-time weather data and forecasts from thousands of weather stations and satellites, along with user feedback, in order to sync watering with weather patterns.

“That allows us to save a lot of water,” said Brenes, who drew up the concept about two years ago with former Skyper and Blossom cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Kaido Kert.

Concerns about water supplies have moved to the center stage of public discourse in drought-stricken California in recent years.

Brenes became acutely aware of his contribution to the problem—and of potential solutions—when the sprinkler system went off at his Laguna Beach home amid a drizzle on a cloudy October afternoon.

“I realized there was clearly a need to optimize water usage,” he said. “That was the genesis of the idea.”

Brenes said he has trimmed about $60 a month from the water bill for his 8,000-sqaure-foot lot since installing the controller in March.

‘Internet of Things’

The company he cofounded brings some executive muscle to the table as it vies for a slice of the booming Internet of Things market.

The market is forecast to hit $7.1 trillion in sales by 2020, up 273% over 2013, from related equipment and components that allow devices to communicate with each other remotely, according to Massachusetts-based market researcher International Data Corp.

A 2013 report by Sweden-based Berg Insight AB projected that smart systems will be installed in 31.4 million homes in North America by 2017, up from 8.4 million this year.

Brenes was one of Skype Communications SARL’s first U.S. employees. He joined the Luxembourg-based company in 2005, leading innovation on a variety of fronts during his nine-year tenure. He is credited with leading development and the launch of Skype on high-definition TVs, the Sony PlayStation Vita hand-held console, and embedded applications for mobile phones, as well as managing Skype’s certification program for hardware devices, a majority of the company’s intellectual property licensing, and its developers program.

Brenes left Skype in July as senior director of the consumer electronics group, which develops products with consumer electronics manufacturers.

Kert also spent nine years at Skype, most recently in the role of principal software development engineer for the consumer electronics group, where he led the integration of the streaming broadcasting technology into embedded hardware platforms, including smart TVs from the likes of Vizio, Samsung and Sony, as well as into mobile operating systems.

Microsoft Corp. bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion from Silicon Valley investors Silver Lake Partners, which acquired the company in 2009 from eBay Inc.

Vizio founder William Wang has played a key role in fostering development at Blossom, bringing it important relationships from around the world.

“He has given us tons of great guidance and support, and his mentoring has been invaluable,” said Brenes, who declined to disclose the amount of the seed round, only saying, “It’s enough to get us where we are.”

The Taiwanese entrepreneur has grown Vizio into the U.S. leader in smart TV and soundbar sales, linking a deep Asian supply chain with quality design done at its Irvine headquarters.

Vizio provided some initial funding but required Blossom to hit benchmarks before releasing the rest of its investment, according to Brenes.

Vizio declined to comment for this story.

The Blossom seed round is believed to be Vizio’s second local fundraising deal and strategic investment. The Business Journal reported in May that the company invested about $1 million for a minority stake in Irvine-based Pear Sports LLC, a developer of fitness training technology that’s aiming to gain a foothold in the emerging wearable technology market.

Taiwan Connection

Brenes’ connections with Taiwan-based Accton Technology Corp. dating back to his tenure at Skype helped Blossom attract seed funding from the global manufacturer, which specializes in advanced networking and communications equipment.

Matt McRae’s role as Blossom’s chairman further strengthens the ties among the companies.

Brenes and McRae previously worked at Cisco Systems Inc.’s home networking group, Linksys LLC. The Irvine-based unit was acquired in 2013 by Playa Vista-based Belkin International Inc. on undisclosed terms but was projected to bring in far less than the $500 million Cisco paid local entrepreneurs Victor and Janie Tsao for the company in 2003.

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