Ember today announced that founder Clay Alexander will transition to Group CEO effective February 16. In his place, the Los Angeles-based smart mug company is bringing on Jim Rowan as Consumer CEO. The executive served as CEO of Dyson from 2017 to 2020, after five years as COO.
It’s a big get for a relatively small company like Ember, which is best known for its smart, heated mugs. Founded in 2012, the hardware startup most recently raised a $20 million Series D in early 2019, bringing its total funding up to just shy of $50 million.
Alexander’s continued role at the company points to additional categories for Ember beyond consumer. “When I founded Ember, I knew there were endless applications for our temperature control technology and with Jim joining our team, we’ll be able to focus on our emerging healthcare vertical and use our technology to help improve and even save lives,” the exec said in a statement.
Courtesy of clever technology and smart design, the company has built a pretty sizable footprint for what might otherwise be a fairly niche product, expanding retail sales to Target, Costco, Best Buy and Starbucks, among others. The startup has done so while maintaining a low headcount of around 100 staffers.
“They have great IP, great design and great innovation, all around precise temperature control,” Rowan said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Obviously that started with the temperature control mugs and flasks, but that IP lends itself to so many other application. For me, that golden thread of being able to use that in myriad of different industries and markets is really, really exciting. One of them, of course, is the cold chain, which has become a lot more important since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good indication of how you can disrupt and innovate in new markets.
Rowan has previously served as the COO of BlackBerry and as a senior exec at Flextronics. After exiting Dyson, he joined both PCH International and KKR as an advisor. It’s Dyson, however, that provides the most direct analogy for what the executive hoping to do at Ember. At its core, Dyson is a company that moves air. That translates to vacuums, fans, hairdryers and myriad other product categories.
The underlying question is how Ember’s proprietary heating and cooling tech can translate to other fields. On an industrial level, it means, potentially, helping keep foodstuff and medicine at a predetermined temperate while shipping in the international cold chain. It also means additional consumer products built around the same underlying tech.
“There will be a lot more products that come out, beyond the current mugs and travel mugs,” Rowan says. “There’s a whole bunch of new products which are in the consumer pipeline and will launch in the next year or couple of years. And then you have the expansion into new geographies with existing products.”
That largely means Asia (Rowan will remain based in Singapore) and Europe. Thus far Ember’s footprint has been U.S.-centric, though a push toward online commerce amid the pandemic has helped expand it some. There does, however, remain a question of how high the ceiling is on adoption for a $130 electric smart mug. Ember has yet to release any actual numbers, and Rowan, whose experience at Dyson has more than familiarized him with selling premium products at a premium price point, isn’t ready to commit to a lower price point or less premium take on the space.
It’s worth noting, of course, that low end of the mug category is ready available at your local 99 cent store, and that’s not likely a space Ember is raring to compete in. And certainly those products — unlike its current lineup — likely wouldn’t end up in Apple Stores. Instead, it seems likely the company will continue a play as a premium consumer brand into additional categories at a more rapid pace. “The actual technology can expand into a whole bunch of new areas beyond just beverages because of the temperature control technology,” Rowan said.