Libelium and a Vision of Smart Cities
One does not usually think of Spain as startup nation (see postscript The Gain in Spain, below), but a small Spanish company Libelium has been getting much attention, especially in Europe, thanks in no small part to its young charismatic CEO Alicia Asin Pérez. Libelium specializes in sensors and sensor networks for the Internet of Things (IoT) and boasts multiple projects especially interesting Smart City applications (although the company’s website does not make much effort to clarify the relative role of Libelium’s hardware vis-a-vis that of the prime systems integrator.) Libelium’s management did an admirable job bootstrapping the company to a revenue to estimated 6 million Euros without any external funding except for cash won at various technology and innovation competitions.
Libelium’s product portfolio comprises wireless gateways and sensor boards designed to facilitate easy Internet connection of sensors using common industrial protocols such as RS-232, RS-485, Modbus and 20mA current loop. On the wireless side, Libelium support any number of long range, midrange and short range protocols. The ideas is to provide an open source sensor platform enabling system integrators to implement reliable IoT solutions.
The company leadership likes to talk about how Libelium is driving the technology evolution of smart city applications. But given its size and position, what future role can Libelium play? Do IoT-enabled sensors in an already crowded and over-hyped space suffice to sustain the company’s momentum? The company’s spokeswoman I spoke with wasn’t very helpful in articulating the company’s strategy, so here is my take.
As I’ve discussed and written in the past, the value realization of IoT applications takes place at the data aggregation, analytics and decision-making end of the IoT technology stack – the opposite end of where Libelium’s technology is deployed. Sensors and wireless connectivity are obviously crucial, and we should expect to see continued improvements in sensor technologies, miniaturization and low power solutions. But the marketplace is already very crowded with vendors that provide distributed wireless communication, and connectivity in itself is rapidly becoming a commodity. See, for example, Forbes article 6 IoT Startups That Make Connecting Things To The Cloud A Breeze. And with the industry of “things” on hyperdrive, we can expect to see multitude of new companies pushing into the space, leveraging platforms such as Raspberry PI, Arduino, Intel Galileo and Edison, and other low cost development kits.
The horizontal product and market strategy places Libelium in the midst of the crowd and may not provide sufficient functional differentiation and, more critically, barrier against this low cost competitors.
On the other hand, Libelium has developed relationships with key systems integrators and technology providers, including Axeda (which, for some reason is described by Libelium as a cloud service provider), IBM, Microsoft, Sentilo, Telefónica and ThingWorx, which offers very good reach and brand exposure, especially for a company of that size. The company open source community boasts 2,000 developers in 75 countries.
Nevertheless, the product portfolio and capabilities in a highly competitive space and the dependency on lead systems integrators limits the company’s ability to play a leadership role in Smart City applications, or, for that matter, in any vertical IoT application. Indeed, the company’s spokeswoman vehemently rejected the notion of any of vertical specialization, but couldn’t articulate how the company intends to remain a horizontal technology provider and support the pervasive Smart City sentiment at the same time.
To raise the barrier to entry and defend against commoditization, Libelium should consider leveraging the experience and exposure it gained to develop targeted expertise and a stronger competitive position. This doesn’t mean abandoning the “plug and sense” strategy to provide horizontal telemetry solutions to any sector. Rather, use the product components and systems integrators ecosystem to focus on a manageable number of vertical segments and offer a comprehensive set of capabilities and reusable solution components to accelerate deployment and time to value, especially at the business facing end of the IoT stack.
Postscript: The Gain in Spain
Spain is home for a number of IoT startups, including, in addition to Libelium, startup companies such as Mildmac, Carriots and EIOT. Spanish telephone carrier Telefónica has a global M2M business unit. Perhaps surprising to some, all major cities in Spain boast some type of Smart City imitative, although the market for hardware provides, overall, is quite small (most of Libelium’s revenue comes from outside of Spain.) As importantly, the Center for the Development of Industrial Technology of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation supports IoT and Smart City initiatives. With this level of activity the risk market will have to undergo consolidation, leaving some upstarts by the wayside.