Welcome to the Smart Home Founders series, where the founders of leading smart home companies get to tell their story. In this edition, we interviewed the duo Siim Nellis (CEO) and Henrik Ling (CTO), the founders of HUUM, a company that creates smart heaters for saunas.
When you think of smart home devices, a sauna probably doesn’t cross your mind. However, in Estonia, there’s a gem of a company conquering the world with their smart sauna heaters. Here’s the fascinating story of HUUM.
In the quiet corners of Estonia, where sauna culture runs deep, the story of HUUM began. Siim Nellis, inspired by his grandfather Paul Nellis, a revered stonemason and builder of sauna stoves, envisioned a future where tradition met technology. This vision was the seed from which HUUM would sprout, a company destined to revolutionize the sauna experience.
Nellis’s journey into the world of saunas wasn't accidental. At the end of high school, around 2007, he started a sauna webshop (in his words the world’s first). It was then when Siim discovered how large the sauna market was outside of Estonia. It triggered him to design and develop his own sauna heater, which would later become HUUM’s first product.
Siim was sure that he wanted to create an electrical heater. At that time burning wood was still the norm, yet it was clear that electrical heaters would be more popular in the near future. After tinkering for years in his garage he had a first prototype, but, he honestly admitted, the first version lacked any discerning features.
All that changed when he asked students of the Estonian Academy of Arts to design a beautiful heater, but one that’s still functional. One of the students came up with the design that you see today in the HUUM Drop. Nellis fell instantly in love with this concept. About two years laters, after applying for European subsidies and finding the right manufacturer, the first product was ready for production.
Almost an afterthought, Siim realized he still needed a control unit for his heater. Traditionally this would be a rotating knob and a few switches, so it’s understandable that he didn’t give much thought to it. He figured that remote control would be nice. Surely there would be many companies doing that already! But, after searching for one, he was amazed that the ‘state of the art’ of sauna remote controls at that time seemed to be stuck in the past. The most advanced products were using an ethernet cable, controllable by a 90’s looking webpage.
Puzzled that no one was doing this right, Siim wanted to design his own controller, and that’s where Henrik joined as CTO. He met Henrik through a friend, who recommended his to-be-CTO while Siim was frustrated and complaining to a friend in a Estonian bar. It was an instant match.
The first prototypes were based around a Raspberry Pi, but they quickly moved to their in-house designed electronics for the unit that controls the sauna. First GSM, and later Wi-Fi were added for connectivity. About five iterations were created before the team finally landed at a V1 that could be manufactured and sold.
Launching the Product
To showcase their new product, Siim and his team visited a few Sauna-related trade shows. The response they received was overwhelmingly positive. The industry as a whole had been at a standstill for 20-or-so years, and there was finally some innovation happening. A sauna with an app was out of this world, and also just in time, because the smart home industry around that time was moving towards mobile-first experiences (including Homey).
Consumers, public sauna entrepreneurs and Airbnb-owners were enthusiastic. However, with many customers came many requests & opinions. For example, the Germans wanted a rectangular black box and the industry’s oldest still wanted a wood burning stove. Siim, Henrik and their team delivered on all these requests with new products.
And still, at the same time, they even found the time to further develop their controller UKU and their heaters. The design was updated, and they also added lighting and humidity controls.
So, what’s next for HUUM? There’s a new product coming out soon, Siim told me, where the smart controller is integrated into the heater itself. It’s set to become available in the beginning of 2024.
And for the rest of the developments? Siim didn’t want to tell, but he assured me there’s a lot of exciting developments happening at HUUM. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on them — from inside my smart sauna!
Saunas for Ukraine
At the beginning of 2022, business was going well for HUUM. Still, when the team saw Russia invading Ukraine, they knew they had to do something. They founded the initiative Saunas4Ukraine to help the soldiers in Ukraine with ten mobile laundry and sauna trucks.
While in certain parts of the world a sauna is still a luxury product, for these men at the frontlines it’s the only way they can clean and revitalize themselves, both for better health and morale. Additionally, they can wash their clothes.
This is an amazing initiative which we definitely wanted to share. You can visit their website at saunas4ukraine.org to learn more about the project, and donate to them if you want.