Popular devices like Arduino and Raspberry Pi have brought sophisticated electronics to within reach of amateur inventors and students. But only a few of those hobbyists manage to turn their passion into a full-time profession and open a hardware startup. We wanted to find out exactly what makes this minority tick, and so we decided to do the only sensible thing: track a few of them down and ask them about life on the front line. We wanted to know what inspired each idea, and the process through which that idea came to be implemented. We were also curious about how the modern hardware entrepreneur goes about assessing the competition.
There’s never been a better time for hardware startups to find their feet. The advent of crowdfunding, cheaper surface-mount IC units, and powerful wireless technologies have made the economics more forgiving, while bustling online communities like Hardware Massive and podcasts like The Hardware Entrepreneur (whose host, Balint Horvath, spoke to us) have provided valuable education for would-be pioneers. But that’s not to say that today’s electrical pioneers don’t face challenges. Join us as we uncover the challenges in becoming a hardware entrepreneur.
Daniel Swiss is a Utah native, and the brains behind the ‘Lightcam’ device. His inspiration, like that of many other hardware startups, came from a practical problem that no existing product could address to his satisfaction.
Dan wanted to install a security camera in an alleyway behind his Salt Lake City garage. Standing in the way of this ambition were strict rules governing his neighborhood, which prevented him from attaching a conventional camera or changing the lighting attached to the garage. A camera built into a light bulb, he reasoned, would accommodate this rule while still providing quality footage from an unobtrusive housing.
Early market research identified a few potential options, most of which were poorly-constructed and unable to perform as needed in most light fixtures. Intrigued, Dan moved onto testing whether such a device was possible. Could a video lightbulb actually be designed to function inside of a glass light fixture at all times?
Finding out required purchasing a host of small cameras and wiring them to smart-bulbs. Having little experience with creating electronics, this presented Dan with a steep learning curve, and so he ended up using whatever hacks he could such as using compact-fluorescent bulbs with controls already built-in.
After he got both lights and camera working, it was time for action. That meant a lot of experimentation between the smart light’s and camera’s software to see whether the bulb could be made to respond whenever the camera sensed motion. Over the course of a few days, the first prototype began to emerge. Though simple, it did precisely the required job. However, creating a single device for his own use was one thing; manufacturing something worthy of sale was something completely different. A phase of extensive design and research followed, during which Dan built multiple prototypes and produced a range of idealized sketches.
Realizing that he had discovered a marketable innovation, he decided to get some help. He contacted an attorney to ensure that there were no patents or patents pending on similar designs, before reaching out to designer friends who’d help him create 3D CADs, and industry experts who’d advise him on how to bring the product to market. These contacts also connected him to software engineers, circuit board designers, and electronics engineers who’d eventually help him bring the product into existence.
The product’s development posed a few serious challenges. Among them was keeping glare out of the camera lens that’s only a few millimeters from a light source. This required the invention of a patent pending lens skirt among other proprietary innovations. Dan wanted LightCam to be simple and plug and play which meant including local storage and a means of dealing with the heat generated in such a small space – even modern LED lights generate heat which can quickly become a significant problem when they’re housed close to sensitive circuits.
Dan’s efforts eventually lead him, like so many other tech pioneers, to a crowdfunding campaign. Lightcam proved exceptionally popular; as of March, its Indiegogo campaign had raised 1543% of its target in the US. And with interest in more than sixty countries, it’s on the way to becoming a global phenomenon, too: a new campaign is just launching in Australia, with more to follow in Europe, Africa, and just about everywhere else.
Air pollution is one of the major drawbacks of living in a major city. And nowhere is this more evident than in China. There are some days where downtown Beijing looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie – and the problem looks likely to worsen before it improves!
While studying for his MBA in finance in China, Korean Ryan JY Yun noticed that the IT sector was beginning to explode. Tech superpowers like Xiaomi and AliBaba were experiencing phenomenal growth, and IoT-enabled smart-devices showed early promise. It seemed a good time to abandon a promising career in finance and take the plunge into the world of tech.
Ryan envisioned a device that could monitor air quality in the home and, with the help of other WiFi-enabled appliances like humidifiers, purifiers, and conditioners, regulate that quality. Being a native of South Korea, a country whose tech industry is all-conquering, Ryan had access to a network of friends with experience of hardware and electronics to help him realize that vision. He reached out to them and thereby gained access to a considerable pool of talent. He quickly identified the individuals who’d help him along his way.
The first prototype was called the ‘Akee’. It was able to detect larger PM10 (that’s Particulate Matter, with each particle being ten micrometers in diameter) dust particles. While this was a promising start, it would take a considerable amount of feedback and development before the birth of the first PiCO, which could detect PM2.5 particles, along with temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).
Ryan notes that there are plenty of products that promise to do precisely what the PiCO does. But what sets this device apart is its IoT connectivity. It’ll provide information not only to the user but to other devices that can use that information. For example, if the humidity begins to change, a humidifier unit can compensate immediately and automatically. Integrate it with an IFTTT platform or Amazon Alexa, and a whole world of possibilities opens up.
Another plus is the device’s remarkably small footprint. It’s just a few centimeters across, and small enough to be held in one hand. It’s also power-efficient and capable of drawing juice from a smartphone or an external power supply.
The journey from inception to a workable prototype took around six months of hard work, and developing the Indiegogo page took another three. The results, however, have surely proven worthwhile: the campaign has surpassed 400% of its target, and Ryan has received interest from manufacturers in five different countries. The future of PiCO appears promising!
If you’re after an idea of the sort of problems a startup might encounter, then who better to ask than Balint Horvath? With an M.Sc. in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in Physics, this Hungarian knows what he’s talking about. Now living in Switzerland, he’s been running his podcast, Hardware Entrepreneur, since December 2016, and spends a considerable chunk of his time interviewing startups from across the world. Most of his guests have gotten past the initial stages of their project, and have begun to put a team in place to make their visions come to life.
Balint notes that the majority of his interview subjects come from a business background rather than an electronics one. Most electronics hobbyists, he reasons, have difficulty dragging themselves away from their code and figuring out exactly how the business is going to work in the long-term. And this lack of business perspective can really hurt even the most innovative new piece of circuitry.
Another problem stems from an inability (or refusal) to delegate. Many startups are equipped with special expertise, and naturally, want to exploit them. They might, for instance, be proficient with AutoCAD, circuit design or SEO, and therefore eager to take those tasks on themselves. As well as being a distraction, this leads to a lack of quality: with a sizeable pool of expert talent now reachable via sites like Fiverr and Upwork, entrepreneurs can easily find someone who’ll do a particular job faster, better and more quickly. Freelancers can lend a hand during the early phases of a project, when a proven business model has yet to emerge, as well as later, during periods of rapid expansion. According to Balint, effective division of labor, outsourcing and automation can make the difference between an unviable startup and an effective one.
Another trend he’s noticed is that prototyping costs can severely hinder a business at the early stages. It’s for this reason that most resort to off-the-shelf components and all-in-one solutions like Arduino. The fewer custom-built parts in the product, the easier, faster and cheaper it’ll be to put together. Once a design is in place and proven to work, customer feedback can be solicited and the product can be refined. New startups often fail because they lose sight of the MVP (that’s your Minimum Viable Product); for your idea to turn into a career, you need to avoid this mistake!
When it comes to creating a winning hardware startup, prototyping is crucial. You need to get your ideas up and running and see how they work in the real world. But while you’re doing this, you aren’t going to be bringing in any revenue – and so there’s no time to waste! This is exactly where tools like ours come into the picture - they streamline the prototyping process and allow you to get your ideas up and running quickly. That way, you’ll be free to concentrate on making your business thrive. So what are you waiting for?