October 7, 2019

Flipping the switch

With its wireless switching technology, Levven Electronics is breaking down cost barriers to home automation

An Edmonton start-up hopes to revolutionize home automation with wireless technology that drastically reduces both cost and installation time.

James Keirstead of Levven Electronics outside their office
James Keirstead

Levven Electronics, an off-shoot of a University of Alberta engineering spin-off, which, after over the course of 30 years and several owners, evolved into a home automation company. In 2011, James Keirstead acquired the company — and gave it its current name — as a vertical integration move. At the time, he co-owned a local hot tub company and wanted to enhance the wireless technology in its products, but Keirstead soon realized Levven’s true potential.

“The [home automation] industry was growing immensely and will continue to grow massively over the next five-10 years.” He believed that with the right approach, the company could capture a healthy chunk of the market.

Innovating to solve problems

The biggest barrier was cost, he says. A fully automated home — that is, complete integration of a home’s lighting, audio, security, and other electronic functions — can cost six-figures. After leaving the hot tub industry in 2014, Keirstead put all of his weight into growing the company and developing a more cost-effective automation system accessible to folks outside of the top 1 percent.

An electrician installing a wireless controller into a ceiling junction.
installing a controller

As a solution to this problem, Levven developed wireless switching, which eliminates wiring between the switch and power control, and saves significant amounts of labour and material costs during home construction. Levven’s system relies on controls installed within junction boxes (the box your light fixture attached to) that can be manipulated by wireless switches via Radio-Frequency technology (the same technology your car’s keychain fob uses).

An electrician installing a wireless switch into a wall.
installing a wall switch

These switches can be installed on walls anywhere in a home (and easily moved to other locations as a family’s needs change over time). They can also be treated as portable controls, perhaps living on the bedside table of a small child too short to reach a conventional light switch in the middle of the night.

Growth: just add expertise

While a simple concept, developing new technology is never easy. Keirstead turned to Alberta Innovates for help and between 2015 and 2017, received extensive expertise from Technology Development Advisors, as well as a micro-voucher, voucher, and funding to hire both a research and development staffer and a marketing associate. “They’ve really been amazing to help us de-risk the enormous investment we’ve had to make to get these technologies off the ground,” says Keirstead.

A closeup of one of Levven's wireless switches.
portable switch without sleeve

Now Levven Electronics is working with builders like Landmark to install the home automation systems in brand new homes in Alberta and a few US States (about 1200 thus far, Keirstead estimates). The company continues to expand elsewhere in North America, pending changes to electrical code interpretations. The company has been successfully lobbying governments to that end; in 2018, Alberta issued changes to its interpretation of the federal code allowing wire-free switching in residential homes. “What’s happening now is that customers are asking for more automation, more builders are putting [our technologies] in…and more builders are looking at us,” says Keirstead.