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35 INNOVATORS: THE INVENTORS
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 116 |NO. 5
PROBLEM: Fraud over the tele-
phone costs banks and retail-
ers more than $1.8 billion a year.
Criminals who call customer service
lines pretend to be legitimate custom-
ers and often dupe the operators into
approving a transfer or divulging sensi-
tive account information.
SOLUTION: Vijay Balasubra-
maniyan can detect where a
call is coming from by analyz-
ing its audio quality and the noise on
the line. If a call purportedly from one
place has the audio signature of a call
from the other side of the world, his
technology can sound an alert. The
company he founded, Pindrop Secu-
rity, counts several banks and an online
brokerage firm as customers.
The audio quality of a phone call
is affected in subtle ways by many fac-
tors, including the networks and cables
it travels through. Pindrop makes hun-
dreds of phone calls per hour to build
a database of what, for example, a cell
phone on a particular network in India
sounds like. The service can then com-
pare those files with the audio patterns
in calls to customer service centers
to determine whether a call is coming
from where it says it is.
You and Tony Fadell, one
of the creators of the
iPhone and iPod, started
Nest after both of you
left Apple. Wasn’t being
in charge of iPod and iPhone software
development your dream job?
I had a Mac Plus when I was three years
old, and I loved Apple as a company. I
flew out to California [from Gainesville,
Florida] with my grandparents on my
13th birthday to go out to Cupertino.
And I told my grandparents then, “Yeah,
I’m going to work at Apple, for sure.”
Then why leave at just 26 years old?
Basically, I pushed as hard as I could,
worked incredibly hard, built tons of
stuff, built teams, built products, and
loved it. But somewhere around my
four-and-a-half-year anniversary at
Apple, we were working on another gen-
eration of iPods and another genera-
tion of iPhones and starting work on
the third generation of iPads, and I was
ready for something new.
Going from smartphones to smart ther-
mostats isn’t an obvious jump.
Tony and I had lunch back in October of
2009. I told Tony, “I’m thinking about
leaving Apple; I’m thinking about start-
ing my own company, and I’m looking
at smart-home stuff.” And he stops me
right there. He goes, “You know what? A
smart home is for geeks. No one wants a
smart home—it’s a stupid idea. Focus on
doing one thing and doing it really well.”
Programmable thermostats existed
before the Nest, but they were awful.
The programming was tough. They were
like the early ’80s VCRs, where you’d
push a button 15 times to change it to
Tuesday and change the temperature
there. Part of it is that the product was
designed to be sold to a contractor and
not designed for a user.
In contrast, the Nest is a lot like the
iPhone—it’s easy to figure out how to use.
The product that we built is basically a
smartphone on the wall.
And there’s nothing I have to push 15
times. There aren’t even any buttons—
you just turn the entire metallic case.
That’s very Apple-like.
When we were building Nest, we were
going to build it like any great product
and design company. You’d have great
industrial design, great hardware engi-
neering, great software engineering,
great services, great consumer market-
ing—all those things.
One way the Nest saves energy is by
detecting when no one’s home. But
there’s got to be much more you can do
on the back end, to make plans based on
weather forecasts and other data.
There’s always more. Since we’ve
launched the product, we’ve done some-
thing like 21 software updates, of which
I’d say five or six have included major
energy-saving algorithm improvements,
and we’re always finding more. The
more detail we have, the more users we
work with, the more homes we’re in, the
more we’re learning. It’s a very long tail
of things we could be doing. You can see
Which brings us back to your original
ideas about a smart home. The Nest
could become a hub for controlling many
things, not just heating and cooling.
It could be, yes.
Portrait by Brett Affrunti
origin of a phone
call cuts fraud,
The cofounder of Nest, which invented
a thermostat that learns people’s
preferences, explains what’s next.
VIJAY BALASUBRAMANIYAN, 33
M AT T ROGERS, 30
8/7/13 1:41 PM
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