Shark Tank Security Startup (UniKey)

By Brian Rhodes, Published on Aug 30, 2013

A startup featured on the US Shark Tank TV show, UniKey, is trying to disrupt residential access control. Now, they are partnering with one of the biggest incumbents in the space "Kevo" to bring it to market. Is the product ready to dominate the market, leaving competitor startups behind in the dust? We examine the details, pro and cons compared to traditional locks as well as smart locks such as Lockitron, Goji and the Yale Z-Wave Deadbolt.

Backstory

UniKey gained notoriety more than 18 months ago, when the company founder appeared on the TV show 'Shark Tank', a series that matches individuals needing startup capital with a room of eccentric, showy investors. The premise: if an individual 'sells' his idea, an investor trades startup funding for a share of prospective business. While UniKey successfully sold the concept and several investors pledged support, a formal agreement never was signed.

However, the exposure paid off when UniKey secured venture capital from 'ff VC' who saw the show. With the subsequent funding, UniKey landed an agreement with residential security giant Kwikset, who is manufacturing and distributing the UniKey concept as part of its 'SmartKey' offerings.

Product Overview

Kevo is a deadbolt lock that needs no mechanical key to retract the latch, instead using an iPhone and touch feedback. The promo video below demos the product:

Unlike other 'phone based' access locks, Kevo is not networked via WiFi or Z-Wave. The deadbolt is completely offline, instead relying on the close proximity of Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE) to authenticate users. This essentially gives the deadbolt a maximum range of 150 feet, however physical contact with the lock itself is required to retract or throw the bolt.

The key is replaced by an iPhone, carrying an authentication token. Because of BLE's comparatively low 2 MHz frequency, it can travel through clothing or even through glass, and the company claims 'you do not even need to take your phone out of your pants' to make it work:

Kevo Details

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Key details include:

  • Side Detection: The unit claims to detect which side of the lock you are standing, so a user will not inadvertently 'unlock' a door for someone standing outside.
  • iPhone Only: Android OS does not support Bluetooth 4.0 (LBE), so development in not on the roadmap.
  • Battery Powered: The unit is powered by a pack of 4 AA sized batteries, which the company claims provides about a year of use.
  • Scheduling/Alerts: From the app or web portal, a master user can assign keys to other iPhone users, set a schedule when they are valid, and receive notifications (by way of phone relay) when the door is opened.
  • Keying Options: For those lacking an iPhone, Kevo offers a standalone plastic fob and a set of mechanical door keys
  • Cost: Kwikset is selling Kevo for ~$220 per lock at 'big box' home improvement retailers, however the product is available for the same price from online retailers. Additional BLE Fobs cost ~$25 and mechanical backup keys cost <$2 from the same 'big box' retailers.

Pros

The list of strengths Kevo brings to the table are substantial, including:

  • Kwikset Partnership: If Kevo is a success, it will not be due to its technical attributes. Rather it will be because Kwikset has the manufacturing and distribution resources to bear where alternative offerings have trouble. In terms of product support, technical service, and brand recognition, Kevo does not need to reinvent entire portions of its business - it simply can leverage what Kwikset already has in place.
  • Key Management: Issuing 'eKeys' happens via Kevo's app, with access definable only during times you select. 
  • Alerts: Even with the lock offline, a phone's app is used as a 'relay' to notify when access is granted through the door, and by whom.
  • SmartKEY: Despite being an entirely new deadbolt, the Kevo can be changed by the user to match the customer's other locks, so existing keys for 'non-Kevo' doors can be used in the Kevo lock.

Cons

However, despite those advantages, Kevo has some troublespots:

  • Must have BLE & 'Location Services' On: In order to work, iPhones must have both of these options turned on, and both are notorious battery hogs, potentially draining hours of time from a device between charges.
  • No remote accessibility:Unlike similar 'smart locks', there is no way to remotely lock or unlock the door. The user must physically be within range and touch the lock to perform either step.
  • DIY Install: While not terribly complex for most, some potential end users could be caught off-guard by needing to replace their own lock, and if the door itself is out of alignment or warped, it may require skills beyond 'DIY' to install.

Comparing Smart Door Locks

Suddenly, the race is on to replace your door locks, and there are a number of competing options in varying stages of development:

  • Lockitron: While the device is remotely accessible and less expensive than Kevo at $179, the product has missed several development and production milestones, and is not yet shipping. While Kevo claims it will start shipping pre-orders next month, Lockitron recently pushed their date back to late fall/early winter of 2013.
  • Goji: Essentially, 'Goji' is the premium lock in this category, with an integrated camera and user LED display part of the lock, but it also costs the most, with pre-orders costing $250, and post-release prices rising higher. Goji also claims the same 'keyless' entry method as Kevo, but is online and will send picture snapshots with log notifications. However, like many of these new products, the shipping date has been pushed back several times. The most recent projected ship date for Goji is estimated at January 2014
  • Yale Z-Wave Deadbolt: Indeed, one of the only 'smart locks' actually shipping at current is Yale's ~$250 Z-Wave offering. Unlike the other 'smart lock' offering, a Z-Wave device requires additional networking equipment and hardware, usually a hub or enhanced alarm panel. While other products offer remote accessibility with a free app or web portal, access to Yale's offering is typically through a subscription based service like Total Connect 2.0

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