published Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Small Biz: Chattanooga startup close to winning spot on Wal-Mart's virtual shelves

George Yu, CEO and founder of Variable Technologies, explains some of the capabilities of the Node device. The device incorporates various sensors -- including movement, heat, light and radioactivity -- into a palm-sized cylinder that connects to a smart phone via Bluetooth.
George Yu, CEO and founder of Variable Technologies, explains some of the capabilities of the Node device. The device incorporates various sensors -- including movement, heat, light and radioactivity -- into a palm-sized cylinder that connects to a smart phone via Bluetooth.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

A Chattanooga startup is on the verge of winning a spot on Wal-Mart's virtual shelves, if online voters give it the thumbs up today in a contest against a cross-state rival.

The Node Wireless Sensor Platform, when connected to an iOS or Android device, can act as an in-home scientific sensor to monitor weather, track movement, or perform any one of a number of real-world experiments. When hooked up to a phone via bluetooth, customers are able to measure almost anything, from matching paint on a wall with an exact brand at the store, to detecting whether competitors in the kettle bell lifting sport are cheating.

The Node, an invention of Chattanooga businessman George Yu, will compete against the Eraselet, a bracelet that also serves as a pencil eraser, which is produced in Goodlettsville, Tenn. The two will go head to head in an online reality show, which is produced by the crew that created ABC's "Shark Tank."

"I think where we stood out is as a complex electronics product that's made in the USA, assembled in the USA and designed in the USA, right here in Chattanooga, Tennessee," said Alex Lavidge, business development manager at Variable, Inc., the 15-person company that makes the device. "It has the potential to be an even larger consumer product as long as we get more apps developed."

In 2012, Variable sold about $500,000 in devices, with unit sales in the thousands, Lavidge said. The company raised $1.25 million in June, on the heels of two Kickstarter campaigns that together raised more than $120,000.

If Variable wins Walmart's "Get on the Shelf" contest, Lavidge said the company wouldn't switch production to China in order to ramp up supply, but would keep producing the small wireless devices in the Scenic City.

"One of the things you see happening right now in the hardware industry is it's easier to create hardware at a fraction of the price of a few years ago, thanks to technology and automation," Lavidge said.

Variable's production method keeps production and design under the same roof, instead of on different continents, which solves a lot of quality problems suffered by North American companies that produce their products overseas, especially in Asia.

"That's one of the reasons you're seeing so much traction, because we can go downstairs and see how every single node is made, and test each one ourselves," he said.

Voters will have 72 hours after the show airs at 1 p.m. today to vote for either the Node or the Eraselet as part of the "Made in America" category, which would see the device going on sale at Walmart.com. The show will air on GetOnTheShelf.Walmart.com, and voters can chime in after 1 p.m.

Regardless of the outcome, Variable is working to sign up more app developers to continue to broaden the number of uses for its device. The hardware itself is capable of hundreds of uses already, but developers have to create more software that takes advantage of the platform, Lavidge said. Before the Walmart contest, the company primarily focused on industrial uses for the Node. But in light of the online popularity of the wireless sensor, Variable is actively seeking partners across the country to add more consumer features.

"People could use this for hiking, working on the car, or sports performance, but those problems can only be solved if the right apps are created," Lavidge said. "That's really the next step for us."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith, esmith@timesfreepress.com, or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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