Why Apple CEO Tim Cook invested in the Nebia by Moen shower head

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A San Francisco startup named Nebia, backed by some of the biggest names in technology, released a $199 shower head this week. It promises to provide a hotter, more satisfying shower using less water than traditional models.

I went to their offices, disrobed and took a 10 minute shower. I’ll tell you what it’s like.

Some background

First, some background.

Nebia seems a lot like a technology company: Gabriel Parisi-Amon, its CEO and co-founder, wrangled iPhone parts in Apple’s supply chain before designing the shower head. Nebia’s based in an industrial neighborhood in San Francisco that’s packed with software startups. Its investors include some high-profile executives: Apple CEO Tim Cook, The Schmidt Family Foundation and Fitbit CEO James Park.

But Nebia by Moen, which launched this week, is not digital technology. There’s no chip, no app and no software.

Instead, Nebia is a bet that non-software companies can combine product design techniques borrowed from some of the Valley’s most iconic firms with the marketing and online sales practices used by other tech-adjacent companies to sell products in stodgy sectors like mattresses, suitcases and now, plumbing fixtures.

“When you’re making a new product, you have to look at it with a blank slate and an open mind,” co-founder and chief marketing officer Phillip Winter said.

When Nebia was building prototypes of its shower heads, Parisi-Amon said it discovered that a 3D printer produced special nozzles faster than a supplier could ship them. This allowed for more frequent tests, more data and a faster development process.

The founders are aware they’re selling a physical product that needs to be manufactured, warehoused, and shipped. Unlike software, you can’t produce another physical unit for free, so the margins are lower. And while the startup was founded in 2014, shortly after Google bought Nest and spurred a wave of investment in technology hardware companies, the sector has cooled. Investment in the sector declined during the last three years, according to Crunchbase.

Winter told CNBC that his firm sold 20,000 units of its Nebia Spa Shower model, which launched in 2015 for $500. But unit sales are likely to increase. In the past two years, Nebia forged a partnership with Moen, a major Ohio-based designer of faucets and fixtures, which teamed with the startup to develop and produce the Nebia by Moen

The Nebia shower that head launched this week ships in May, is Moen-branded and costs $200. It’ll be available in home improvement stores later this year.

I went to their offices, disrobed and took a 10 minute shower to see what it was like.

I took a shower

Nebia’s founders say that getting investors under the shower is their key to getting so many big-name people on board.

The company built a private shower inside what used to be a server closet in its loft office in San Francisco and encourages prospective employees, investors, and journalists like me to try it out. It can be awkward, Parisi-Amon said, but people who become involved with the startup nearly always accept the shower.

Cook invested after he tried a prototype at a Silicon Valley gym, Winter said. He became the company’s first investor and has provided ongoing support. Moen signed on board after executives found the shower reminded them of a Tesla.

It’s not a typical shower — it mists water instead of dumping it on you. Parisi-Amon recommended letting it run and mist for up to a minute before getting in. Low heat is a common complaint with so-called “low flow” showers. I was able to adjust the angle and height of the shower head, bringing it closer to my head for a hotter, more intense shower. It was definitely warm enough for me, and I like hot showers.

I like the design, too. The shower head is clad in aluminum, like a MacBook or iPhone, and it has thoughtful touches, like a magnetic mount for a detachable shower hose. The part where the water comes out of is a graceful, curved loop, with six different jets that spray mist. It looks premium.

But it’s kind of expensive

$200 or $500 seems like a lot to spend on a plumbing fixture when hardware stores sell comparable products for as little as $20 or less, though those are typically mostly made of plastic. Winter says the cost doesn’t seem as high when you consider that water costs money, and the Nebia product uses less water than competitors.

“The payback period is fast,” Winter said. “A family of four in NYC will be paid back in less than a year,” he said of the savings.

For now, even after the partnership with Moen, Nebia is launching its newest shower head on Kickstarter. It believes Kickstarter customers give detailed feedback and will provide cash flow benefits to the company. The company’s not profitable yet but sees breaking even as an important short-term goal, Parisi-Amon said.

A previous version of this story misattributed The Schmidt Family Foundation’s investment in Nebia. 

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