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Tim Talk: Disrupting dog food industry in Danville, electric outlet norms in Dublin

 

When it comes to disruptive companies innovating in the Tri-Valley, it's easy to think of technology firms or life science companies.

How about firms breaking through in seemingly mundane areas such as dog food and electric outlets and switches?

Yes, travel up Interstate 680 to Danville, and you can find Dave Knoepfle and his Coast + Range organic pet food company targeted at the $32 billion industry. His food is manufactured and shipped by a contracting company with a new plant in the heart of the country.

A few miles away in Dublin, Amber Solutions is striving to bring its revolutionary solid-state electric outlets and other electric devices to market. The company debuted its products this winter in Las Vegas at both the huge consumer electronics show and a major home-builders show.

The two companies were among eight honored by the Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group at its fourth annual #GameChangers recognition event last month.

For Dave, he spent his career working in the food industry, including the last several years for major pet food manufacturers. He's become convinced that healthier food is the solution to the epidemic of diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cancer striking American pets today.

The core of his solution is making a scientifically designed food that is based on the reality that dogs are carnivores and thus need more protein and less carbohydrates. The website includes an easy questionnaire to evaluate the ingredients in the current dog food. The site, which offers free samples, is designed to provide dogs with proper nutrition throughout their lives and recognizes that each dog is unique.

Formulating the food took the nutrition team of two holders of PhDs, three veterinarians and an expert in Chinese medicine nearly a year. Collectively, they have more than 100 years of experience. The database includes information on 550 breeds of dogs to produce the customized recommendation.

Typical kibble dog food is cooked at very high temperatures that kill the nutritional value of the ingredients requiring synthetic supplements to be added. By contrast, Coast + Range food is gently baked to maintain the nutritional value.

Launched in the fourth quarter of 2018, Coast + Range is privately funded by investors. It launched in the Midwest and West Coast and, with the most recent round of funding, it will be able to deliver to any address in the contiguous 48 states through its third-party logistics provider.

When it comes to electrical outlets, what Amber is doing is equivalent to silicon chips replacing wired circuit boards in computers. The solid-state approach shrinks the size of an electrical receptacle.

Chris Casey, one of the principals at Amber, described the size change as going from a 30-pack of chewing gum to the size of a single stick. The next phase, with a chip, will shrink the size to the paper wrapping the single gum stick folded up.

This shift creates a huge amount of space in the traditional gang boxes for other components such as sensors. Instead of one or two carbon monoxide sensors in a home, imagine how safe it would be with sensors in every electrical box. That sensing capability, done with wireless technology, coupled with artificial intelligence, has been part of the company's plan since serial business entrepreneur Thar Casey founded it with chief scientist Mark Telfus. Steve Gerber is the chief technology officer.

The company has developed outlets, smarter wall switches, dimmers and circuit breakers all utilizing its solid-state approach. Chris Casey describes it as going from an old tube TV (remember those) to the flat screens of today. There are no moving parts, so it's both safer and more reliable to say nothing of adding the multi-sensing functions.

"We are taking big steps now that our security, control and automation can provide new sorts of features that previously were unavailable such as 10-plus sensors each wall," Chris said. "It could be an Iron Dome (Israel's missile defense system) home for each family." That opportunity has been a focus of the firm since it launched.

Amber was founded in December 2016 and was self-funded by the founders. They are currently closing their first round of funding and starting to raise Series B. They hope to bring their product to market by the winter of 2020-21. The core team in Dublin includes 20 experienced professionals and, according to Chris, is intentionally running very lean.

Editor's note: Journalist Tim Hunt has written columns on the Tri-Valley community for more than 40 years. He grew up in the valley and lives in Pleasanton. His "Tim Talk" blog appears twice a week at PleasantonWeekly.com.

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