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Amid surging market for Bluetooth beacons, Gelo prepares for more growth

CEO Jason Hall

Founded in 2011, Grand Rapids-based Gelo Inc. has positioned itself near the forefront of an emerging U.S. market for Bluetooth low energy beacons, small devices which can locate smartphones and tablets down to much finer distances than GPS. Steven Thomas Kent fills us in on how this little-known company specializes in technology with the potential to change the way we engage with art installations, medical care and more.
Even though Grand Rapids-based Gelo Inc. experienced a tenfold swell in sales in 2014 and seems poised for continued explosive growth in 2015, Gelo’s vice president of sales and marketing Al Juarez admits that most West Michigan residents probably have never heard of the company and aren’t yet familiar with the Bluetooth-beacon technology they work with.

But Juarez says that 2015 could end up as the year that Bluetooth beacons, already a trendy technology for the tech press in Europe, really begin to infiltrate the popular consciousness in the United States via increased media coverage and hardware deployment.

The matchbox-sized beacons, which retail for around $35 from Gelo and interact with nearby devices to provide proximity-based content and push notifications to users, lured major commercial entities like the NFL, MLB , McDonald’s and Macy’s into the market last year. It’s only a matter of time, Juarez says, before more and more companies begin to take notice and follow suit.

“I think 2014 was a demonstration year,” Juarez says. “We demonstrated that we really do have viability, we really do have a customer base.”

“2013 was a lot of noise in the marketplace,” he adds. “2014 was where real players started coming and buying in, and real deployments actually started occurring. I think 2015, you’re going to see more deployments in greater variety and quantity.”

Gelo (that’s “gee-lo,” not “jello”) was founded in Holland, Mich. in 2011 by entrepreneur Chris Byrnes, whom Juarez says has largely moved away from day-to-day operations. The company, now based in Grand Rapids and led by CEO Jason Hall, Juarez and a small team of full- and part-time employees, specializes in beacons that use Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology to communicate with and track the location of nearby devices.

While most smartphone users today use GPS to track their location on a regular basis, BLE beacons, which have a range of about 150-200 feet, can provide much finer location detail than GPS. GPS can track a smartphone’s location down to the range of around a city block, but a BLE beacon can figure out where a user is standing within a small room, down to a matter of inches. BLE is not a competitor to GPS, Juarez notes; rather, it provides an “added, more granular layer” to what GPS can do.

Imagine entering a modern art gallery equipped with BLE beacons: As you walk among the artworks, the beacons know which painting or exhibit you’re currently standing in front of. They help the art gallery’s app pull up additional info for you on each piece, like the artist’s bio and statement on a piece, or multimedia content like a video detailing a work’s creation.

On the other end, the beacons can track analytic data on users’ movements via their phones and transmit the results to cloud-based software for the gallery owner. This data could let them know, for instance, how much traffic a given piece attracts, or how long people tend to linger in a certain area — so remember the beacons before you park in front of the cheese plate for the evening.

Gelo worked with SiTE:LAB to provide an experience much like this at the Morton House at Artprize 2014, which was voted best venue at Artprize for the year. Gelo’s beacons, which SiTE:LAB credited in their win, provided information on the history of the Morton House, details about the artists and videos on the production of the works, content that SiTE:LAB’s Grant Carmichael likened to DVD special features for a physical space.

BLE technology was especially valuable in designing the Morton House venue, Juarez notes, because the old building’s thick walls interfered with cellular signal. However, BLE beacons don’t require a phone signal. Instead, all the content is packaged into the app for the venue or business, and the beacons simply call up the relevant content based on a user’s proximity.

Al Juarez“I can [use this technology] in a concrete basement five stories below ground,” Juarez says. “I can gather analytics on where [a user is] moving throughout the indoor space, and the next time their phone sees a signal, and the app is running, it will upload the analytics to the cloud.”

Gelo has also worked with the Grand Rapids Public Museum to create an app-based scavenger hunt and with the Arts Council of Greater Lansing to create a community art walk.

But Gelo’s scope extends well beyond West Michigan, and beyond the art and tourism world. They’ve also designed beacon use cases and tailored software apps for tracking heavy industry and health care equipment; one use case, for example, would allow EMS first responders to inventory the equipment loaded into an ambulance with a quick scan of a mobile phone, rather than double-checking every item by hand. They’ve also created an app for a realtors’ association that gathers information on real estate clients and which properties they visit, and a use case that monitors retail employees and store customer counts using keychain-sized BLE beacons (retailing around $20 each) and a hub sensor ($100).

The list of clients for Gelo is starting to include nationally-recognized companies, too; they worked with NBC Universal last year, who used Gelo beacons at Universal Studios theme park for a Halloween “night walk” event, and Gelo plans to work with them again this coming year. They’re also in contact with McDonald’s corporate and a group of franchise owners, for whom they’re currently developing a proof of concept. And Gelo is working with a client to provide a solution for Caterpillar, John Deere and CNH Industrial, which involves tracking and monetizing maintenance information on heavy machinery.

“We’re starting to get traction with some pretty big names now, and some pretty big names are starting to look into this technology,” Juarez says. “And once these companies see a few of the big names starting to adopt it, they’re all going to want it. So we’re expecting to see a lot of major players start to jump on board with this very soon.”

Gelo hosted content for some of its early clients through its own branded apps, Gelo Hunt and Gelo Tours. Over time, though, says Juarez, the company heard feedback that clients didn’t want users seeing information from other venues and tours, so Gelo gradually moved their own brand to the background and focused on creating custom-tailored apps for individual clients.
In doing so, they’ve gathered significant experience creating apps and overall solutions for both iOs and Android, Juarez says, and positioned themselves to adapt with changes in the market as different technologies jockey to become the standard for proximity-based communications.

“Right now our vehicle is Bluetooth low energy beacons,” Juarez says, “but three years from now, five years from now, I don’t think we’re gonna care what the hardware is. Proximity communications is the gig we’re going to be pursuing — the beacons are just our current vehicle to get there.”

Apple was the first major company to create a standard set of protocols for proximity communications with iBeacon, which they introduced with iOS 7 — an unveiling that Juarez says “blew the doors open” for this kind of technology. (Note that an “iBeacon” refers to the set of protocols and any approved beacon that works within them, not a specific Apple-branded beacon; Gelo beacons are technically “iBeacons.”)

Samsung recently jumped into the fray, though, with a competing Android-only technology, “Proximity”, while Google’s emerging “Physical Web” is another standard. Both of these competitors designed their technologies to avoid the need for users to download numerous extra apps to interact with each new brand or business; in doing so, however, they sacrifice iBeacon’s ability to work without a cellular connection.

“It’s like the days of video recorders,” Juarez says of the emerging proximity communications market. “Is it gonna be VHS, Beta, or something else? We know it’s gonna be on tape, we just don’t know what format it will be, exactly.”

Regardless, Gelo expects continued explosive growth in the emerging market for BLE beacons and other proximity-based communication methods, says CEO Jason Hall. The company is actively courting investment interest and seeking about $1m in seed funding. If they receive it, Hall says, the company could easily double its staff in short order.

And though they’re still small, Gelo aren’t up against giants by any means, Hall says. Most of their competitors are small startups too, with just a couple having received major investment within the past year.

“The market is calling for [growth from us],” Hall says. “It’s not just us saying, ‘Hey, we want to build a big company.’ We can’t keep up with the demand, really, at this point, for our product and development services. We’re doing as much as we can with the resources we have at this point, but we feel like we could grow the company a lot quicker with the seed funding we’re seeking.”

Hall and Juarez both note the irony of the transatlantic divide on BLE and proximity communications: While the idea has captured the attention of the European press, the United States is actually ahead in terms of technology and overall deployment. Consumers and journalists on this side of the pond just haven’t quite caught up with the fast-emerging industry yet.

“Over there, I think they’re in love with the idea: ‘Oh man, isn’t this cool?’” says Juarez. “Americans, we seem to just do stuff and write about it later.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird
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