There's a fundamental problem with much of the technology developed in university labs: It usually stays in university labs. The call for greater emphasis on technology transfer between universities and the marketplace isn't new, and while tech startups are booming, hardware remains a tough sell for investors looking to back promising technology entrepreneurs. But that may be changing. Three new developments are converging to make this the dawn of the age of the hardware startup.
The first is intuitive. Rapid prototyping with 3D printing and the ever-declining cost of computing power are lowering longstanding barriers to entry for hardware developers. Components that previously required machining or custom fabrication are now available to anyone with some 3D design experience and the membership fee to join a maker space.
Cheap, flexible computing platforms, like the raspberry pi, have further lowered costs. A hardware prototype no longer means an investment of tens of thousands of dollars, and the same conditions that keep costs low are allowing developers to iterate and refine their inventions quickly.
Still, there's a big difference between a cool piece of hardware and a solid product. That's where accelerators come in. While the concept is far from new, the recent rise of accelerators focusing specifically on hardware is. One of the most prolific is Pittsburgh-based AlphaLab Gear. I reached out to Managing Director Ilana Diamond to find out how they're making hardware palatable to investors. "Investors have always been concerned about technical risk when it comes to hardware," she says. "They're obviously very hesitant to invest in something that might not be doable. But they're also hesitant to invest in something that hasn't shown technical traction in the marketplace. We can help in both areas."
Diamond looks for teams that can get to a fundable plan in a reasonable amount of time. A large part of that effort comes down to identifying an appropriate customer for a piece of hardware. When entrepreneur and engineer Avishai Geller came to AlphaLab last year with a contextually aware headset, he was pitching it as a personal assistant for your ears. "He wanted to make it a consumer product," says Diamond, "but we thought that would be a tough sell. So we helped him explore other markets."
They settled on an unlikely one: The trucking industry has always been plagued by the serious problem of long haul drivers losing their reflexes or nodding off on the road. AlphaLab saw an opportunity for a contextual headset that would alert drivers when they doze off or if they begin showing potentially dangerous symptoms like an elevated heart rate.
"Everyone wants to go the consumer route at first, but with business-to-business deals you might sell 1000 units all at once. It gives you a chance to learn before your product hits the consumer market." Geller's company, Maven Machines, quickly found three trucking companies interested in his product.
In addition to seed funding, one of the most important tools AlphaLabs provides young tech entrepreneurs is a shift in perspective. "They have to get away from thinking about how cool their product is and start thinking about what problem they're solving," says Diamond. "That means listening to customers."
Part of the problem is that universities often don't encourage students and researchers to bring their lab projects to market. In March, researchers Andy McEvoy and Nikolaus Correll, roboticists from the Correll Lab at the University of Colorado, published a paper in the journal Science arguing that the development of smart materials that couple sensing, actuation, computation, and communication for the robotics market will rely on increased communication between scientific disciplines and far greater cross-pollination between universities and the marketplace.
If mass-produced economically and available as a commodity, robotic materials have the potential to add unprecedented functionality to everyday objects and surfaces, enabling a vast array of applications ranging from more efficient aircraft and vehicles, to sensorial robotics and prosthetics, to everyday objects like clothing and furniture.
The implication is that there's a barrier between universities and the marketplace that's holding up the development and dissemination of many of these materials. But some schools are catching on. Carnegie Mellon University, home to some of the country's most ambitious robotics research, has actively encouraged students to bring technology projects to market through Project Olympus, an innovation center that "operates at the earliest stages of the value creation chain."
Project Olympus "aims to augment and accelerate the process of moving cutting-edge research and great ideas to development and business stages through licensing, creating start-ups, and through corporate collaboration and strategic partnerships." It does this by providing start-up advice, micro-grants, incubator space, and connections in both the business and academic spheres.
Diamond is a fan of the school's approach to seeding tech start-ups. "They don't take any rights to undergraduate works, so the students don't have to license the technology. For faculty and grad students they have very clear paths for licensing, very straightforward rules. I haven't seen it anywhere else to quite that extent, and it seems like a very positive trend." Although AlphaLabs has no formal relationship with CMU, it has worked with several teams that have come out of the school.
CMU may be the gold standard for sending academic technology to market, but as other universities begin to buttress their support for entrepreneurial students and researchers, there's no question that we're going to see more great hardware that has its origins in academic labs.
With advances in rapid prototyping and the low cost of computing power, and with accelerators helping teams hone their message and attract investors on their journey from the lab to the marketplace, this will be an exciting period for those of us who follow the latest and greatest hardware.