Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

These startups are building smarter furniture

Cambridge-05/17/2017- Soofa makes high-tech solar-powered information boards and park benches for charging smart phones. Sandra Richter is the co-founder and CEO, plugs her smartphone into one of their Cambridge benches. JohnTlumacki/ The BostonGlobe (business)

JohnTlumacki/ The Boston Globe

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter, with one of the Cambridge company’s benches, started the business as an MIT researcher. The benches use a solar panel to charge portable electronics — and also can gather data about pedestrian activity.

Even before the Revolution, New England was home to innovative furniture makers. Some of their products featured secret compartments for valuables, pull-out trays to hold candles, or fold-down surfaces that made big tables easier to tuck away against a wall.

Continuing that tradition these days are startups developing city benches that can recharge a smartphone while collecting data about pedestrian traffic, or building furniture for small spaces that can be automatically stashed away with a spoken command. But the craftsmen of the 18th century didn’t have venture capital firms or crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo to fund their development work. They also didn’t have to compete with global giants like IKEA of Sweden, which raked in a record $38.4 billion last year.

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One of the most interesting startups in Boston, Ori Systems, is working on what it calls “architectural robotics” — a somewhat hype-y term for furniture that can get out of the way when it isn’t needed to make the most of a compact space. Founder Hasier Larrea says the company is focusing on studio apartments in the 300- to 600-square-foot range.

“The concept of transforming space is older than our grandpas,” Larrea says. “You have pull-out tables and Murphy beds.” Those might be fine for occasional use, but Larrea is thinking about an everyday routine that would involve using a desk in the afternoon, but putting it away at bedtime, or in the morning clearing space for a workout routine. He calls it having “space adapt to us, versus having us adapt to space, which is the way it has been for thousands of years.”

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One way you’ll be able to control Ori Systems’ furniture is with a touchscreen that lists certain “pre-sets,” such as “bedroom” or “office.” But the company is also working on integrations with voice-driven devices like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, which would let you rearrange the room with just a few spoken words.

Ori Systems

Boston-based Ori Systems is designing a furniture system that can reconfigure a studio apartment at the touch of a button, here turning a living room into an office.

Ori doesn’t plan to sell its shape-shifting furniture directly to consumers but rather to the owners of apartment buildings. “We found out that most of the studio apartments in this country are rented, not purchased,” Larrea says. “Builders and real estate developers control hundreds or thousands of units, and we’ll sell to them, but the final value comes to the renter who lives in that apartment. They get something that acts like it is much bigger.”

During its development phase, the company has installed versions of its technology in five apartments around Boston, which it rents out by the night through the website Airbnb. Larrea doesn’t want to divulge exactly where they are or how to find them on the site “because we want unbiased testers,” he says. Their feedback will inform the final version of Ori’s product.

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Like Ori Systems, Cambridge-based Soofa is adding a layer of technology to furniture. Both companies, incidentally, trace their roots to research at the MIT Media Lab.

“We discovered the power of power,” Soofa chief executive Sandra Richter said. “We noticed that in public spaces, you found people huddling around power outlets, and complaining about their phones dying triggered conversations and friendships.” Soofa sells a bench with built-in solar panels and USB charging ports. The solar panels charge up a battery, which in turn delivers power to the charging ports. Among the first customers, Richter says, were the city governments of Boston, Cambridge, and Los Angeles. “We sold benches before we’d raised money for the company, or even incorporated it,” she says.

One interesting design challenge the company faced with its earliest prototypes: People would sit on the bench and use the solar panel like a table, plopping down a purse or grocery bag, cofounder Jutta Friedrichs says. That blocked the sunlight. “We decided to angle the solar panel, so that when you put something on it, it would slide off,” Friedrichs explains. “To figure out the proper angle, we put a half-full can of Coke on it.”

Ori Systems

Ori Systems has installed its furniture in five apartments around Boston, and has been renting them through the website Airbnb. The goal is to gather feedback from unbiased testers. Above, the table descends from the ceiling.

There’s also a sensor inside the bench that “listens” to signals from passing smartphones, as a way to keep tally on pedestrian activity in the area, without collecting any identifiable personal information. “If you’re trying to put money and resources into cities, city government needs to understand how they’re being used,” Richter says. “When a city puts money into a plaza, they want to know, how did the baseline activity level there change?” Soofa’s benches can now be found in 75 cities, mainly in the United States.

Soofa is starting to market a second product: a solar-powered information display that can show bus or train arrival times and upcoming events, as well as advertising. (You can see one of the earliest versions of the sign near Faneuil Hall.) Earlier this month, Soofa said it has raised $2.5 million in funding from two local firms, Pillar and Underscore.VC.

Even with a compelling product, entrepreneurs still need to crack the riddle of how to get consumers to buy it. A year ago, John Humphrey, the founder of a Providence startup called Greycork, sent me an e-mail boasting that the company had just raised $1 million from investors “to take on IKEA.” Greycork was peddling simple, well-designed living room items such as shelving units and a sofa. Like IKEA, Greycork’s products could be shipped in a flat package. They required no tools to assemble and were made in a factory in Somerset owned by Humphrey’s family.

Humphrey says Greycork raised $2 million over its short lifespan and sold about 3,000 items. (A Greycork bookshelf cost $180; a coffee table went for $125.) But it found that it wasn’t only competing with big producer-retailers like IKEA and Crate & Barrel, but also with hand-me-down furniture given to young adults by their relatives, or furniture sold on second-hand marketplaces like Craigslist.

Humphrey says the best way that Greycork discovered to inspire customers to place an order was to run “flash sales,” or short-term discounts, and promote them to the company’s e-mail list and social media following. But constant discounting, it turns out, can be rough on a young business. In March, Greycork delivered its last coffee table and called it quits.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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