Singapore startup develops unique digital lock system for convenient home sharing

If you've ever tried to let out a room Airbnb-style, you would have likely run up against the issue of key access. Should your house guests be arriving at 3am, for example, you're either stuck with waiting up to let them in, or slipping a key under your doormat - neither of which are particularly good options.

Enter Igloohome, an eight-month-old Singapore startup which has solved the problem by developing a unique digital lock system.

Once an Airbnb reservation is confirmed, a PIN code is automatically generated for the guest. This is entered into the Igloohome smart lock's keypad, which is installed on the host's front door in lieu of a regular lock. This allows the guest to come and go freely without the need for a physical key.

At the end of the guest's stay, that PIN code expires and a new one is generated for the next visitor. Since the entire check-in and check-out process is completely digitised, hosts no longer have to be present when their guests arrive or leave.

The idea for Igloohome came about because its founders were Airbnb hosts themselves, and had come to experience first-hand the issues surrounding short-term home rentals.

Said Igloohome co-founder and chief operating officer Walter Wang: "At the time, I was a full-time professional, so I often wasn't at home. I would leave the door unlocked (to let guests in), but that wasn't very safe. So we thought that some smart home solution to help Airbnb hosts manage their property would be very useful."

Together with Igloohome chief executive officer Anthony Chow and two other co-founders, Dr Wang - who holds a PhD in Bioinformatics from the National University of Singapore's Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering - brought the initial idea of integrated smart locks and sensing technology to a hackathon in Singapore.

This led the team to the DreamIt Philadelphia accelerator programme. They have since raised US$1.25 million in seed funding led by Wavemaker Partners, with participation from Singtel Innov8 and DreamIt Ventures.

According to Mr Chow, Igloohome is now valued at US$5 million to US$10 million as "a ballpark range". The company is looking to raise another round of funding in a few months' time. It is also looking to expand its current headcount of 10.

Igloohome is not the first to create a digital lock - tech giants have been on the smart home revolution for a long time.

"There's nothing stopping Samsung or Philips from coming in and swallowing everything up," admitted Mr Chow. "But we're different from other home automation platforms, in that we're specifically targeting the sharing economy."

Unlike Samsung's smart home appliances (which tend to focus on a single household's experience within their own home), Igloohome is setting its sights on the "shareconomy" - where access to goods and services are shared peer-to-peer, from houses to offices, or warehouses to cars.

But the biggest obstacle is the issue of safety - after all, in order to make an exchange, users have to be trustworthy.

With Igloohome's smart lock, questions of hacking and home safety inevitably loom large. But Mr Chow is keen to put this into perspective: "Even if you have a key, someone can take it and duplicate it or lose it. In this situation, your phone becomes the key.

"Now, you may ask what happens if the phone gets lost. First, if your phone gets lost there are a lot more important things in there to worry about. Second, there is a remote lockdown capability, where you give us a call - much like how you'd call a credit card company to cancel your lost card. We'd shut down access on the back end, and that ensures that no one can go into your house."

Mr Chow emphasised as well that even if the electronics fail, Igloohome's smart lock comes with a traditional lock and key as well, which can override the digital commands. "So far that hasn't happened, we are keeping our fingers crossed," he added.

According to Igloohome, smart locks typically sell for around S$800 to S$1,000. Igloohome's is priced far lower. While it is usually sold at S$399, it is temporarily going for S$99 - a deliberate move to draw as many people as possible to adopt the solution. Mr Chow says around 500 Igloohome locks have been installed across the Asia-Pacific region, in areas such as Singapore, Thailand, Australia, Japan, Shanghai and Beijing.

The idea is to make Igloohome locks so pervasive that the team can expand into new markets and service offerings.

"Imagine if we have 100,000 smart locks installed in Singapore ... Customers' lives could be made even easier with new services," said Mr Chow. These include one-time PIN codes generated specifically for delivery or housecleaning services.

Already, the company has moved beyond its smart lock offering. With its app, Igloohome's Airbnb hosts can request on-demand tidying services, even when no one is home. It is also looking at tracking utilities consumption, so that hosts can potentially charge guests for over-use.

The Igloohome team is testing these new services and prototypes at their office, a house on Robin Close. The team uses the ground floor for its day-to-day operations, and lists the rest of the rooms on Airbnb.

"Even though our company already has live deployments, we're still undergoing a lot of product iterations. Having this property and renting out listings allows us to stay in touch with actual customers," says Mr Chow, who added that his landlord does not mind their set-up.

There's also the added bonus that these rentals help to offset Igloohome's rent, which is around S$7,000 to S$8,000 per month.

It's certainly a shrewd move, although the company is looking to be at the forefront of more than just the short-term rentals market. Asked about the company's vision and end-goal, Mr Chow said: "Eventually, we want to be the leading home innovation player."

This article was first published on April 26, 2016. Get The Business Times for more stories.