The dream of building an automated house is enduring—The Jetsons! Pee-wee Herman!—but realizing that dream is another story.
Turns out, it’s not so easy.
Enter Lyubomir Yanchev. At 20, he’s taken an idea he had in high school, developed a product that turns air conditioners into smart machines, and has founded a startup that recently attracted more than $500,000 in investments. And he’s not done dreaming.
Melissa is a fist-sized device that can control just about any AC unit that takes commands from an infrared remote control (that excludes the central air conditioning systems often seen in the U.S. but includes the vast majority of systems that are commonly used in most of the rest of the world). It has its own hygrometer and thermometer, so it can calculate the “real feel” in a room in addition to the current temperature. The rest is done over the Internet: Melissa connects to a server and a smartphone app that can either control the AC automatically or allow you to control it manually from your phone.
It has all the capabilities you would expect from a smart gadget designed to plug into the Internet of Things: It can “learn” your habits and preferences, maintain different temperatures in different rooms (by linking different devices to the same account), tap into the location services of your phone to turn the AC on once you are within a preset radius of your home, and be easily updated to support new models of air conditioners coming out on the market. It saves up to 25% on a typical electricity bill, Yanchev claims.
There are currently three major competing brands on the international market, but at €69 ($79) on the Bulgarian market (€79, or $90, in Spain and other countries, where it is about to become available), Melissa is considerably cheaper. Yanchev says this is a deliberate marketing strategy: “We are making a device for the masses.”
It all started as an ambitious high school project when he was 17. “I wanted to control all appliances at home: heaters, washing machines, TVs, blinds, coffee machines, everything.”
At that point, he had been programming for some 10 years, and was no stranger to student competitions. He presented his project at several contests in his native Bulgaria and the neighboring countries, and quickly won prizes and recognition. Everyone praised him: In 2013, the Bulgarian-language edition of Forbes named him as one of 30 most influential young Bulgarians under the age of 30. Just 18 at the time, he was the youngest person to make the list.
But reality hit as soon as he put together a small team and decided to turn his vision into a product. Or, rather, 10 products that could control a range of appliances and devices around one’s house. A defining moment came up at the Hub:raum accelerator for startups organized by Deutsche Telekom in Krakow in December 2013. There Yanchev and his crew failed to make the shortlist for the subsequent incubator, and they were repeatedly told that they were trying to bite off way more than they could chew.
Yanchev was forced to agree with the withering criticism. “We were inexperienced, we weren’t up to the task of creating 10 different gadgets at the same time,” he says. “It took us such effort and such a long time to create one. So we decided to focus on one.”
He says the idea for the current version of Melissa–to focus on a single device–came from his Tae Kwon Do teacher who had an air conditioner business on the side. (Yanchev has practiced Tae Kwon Do since he was 7, and has a black belt in the sport.) After the cold shower in Krakow, he tweaked his approach and proceeded more cautiously. He soon met with a major distributor of air conditioners in Bulgaria, who offered to invest.
Market research ensued, and the results suggested that Melissa would find an enthusiastic audience. And Yanchev also decided to try a social experiment of his own: For people who said the idea was “cool,” he would challenge them to put a 40% down payment on a device to be delivered in the future.
“I hate it when people tell me, ‘This is so cool,’” he says. “I don’t care for a compliment, I care whether this person will pull money out of their pocket or not.”
With that plan in mind, he went to Silicon Drinkabout, a weekly meeting of startup entrepreneurs in Sofia.
“I told myself, if I can sell 30 devices in 30 days, I’ll do it,” he recalls. “In 30 minutes, I sold four. And that convinced me.”
So July of last year, with partners Blagovest Dimitrov, 22, and Zanni Sabev, 38, he founded Melissa Climate Ltd. Some two months later, they received a total of €100,000 ($114,000) in investments from two major Bulgarian investment funds, Eleven and Rosslyn Capital.
That’s when technical challenges started to pop up: The team spent months figuring out how to send infrared signals efficiently from different locations in a room, selecting the best Wi-Fi chip, and positioning the thermometer and hygrometer so that they would provide accurate readings. Even manufacturing the outer shell with its wavy design turned out to be a challenge.
“It was meant to take six months, but it took almost a year,” Yanchev says. “Nevertheless, we met our goals and we are expanding rapidly.”
The initial batch of devices, which came to market about two months ago, have already sold out, Yanchev claims. And Melissa recently received an additional €500,000 ($570,000) in investments from the two funds. There are plans to expand to Spain, Italy, Turkey, and other countries. Yanchev does not have plans to sell Melissa in the U.S. as of now–largely due to the popularity of central air conditioning systems–but he does hope to make the product available on Amazon.
“We were impressed by the personal qualities of [Yanchev] and his team,” says Daniel Alexandrov, managing director of Rosslyn Capital. “The product is useful and saves electricity, it’s a smart device that adapts to people’s needs and creates comfort. We believe it has good market potential, and we hope that it will be followed by other useful products with different functionalities.”
Yanchev says that while he’s happy with the success, he has not given up his high school dream.
“Maybe the next device will be a Melissa for water heaters.”