Into the Forge Podcast: Synthesis Question One

As we get ready to launch our third season of “Into the Forge,” the Lemnos podcast, we are taking a moment to look back at the wisdom shared from the first two seasons. We ask each founder the same 10 questions, and their answers shine a light on the diversity, frustrations, and joys of the hardware startup experience.

 

Question One – Why did you start your hardware company?

In each Into The Forge podcast, we ask each founder what motivated him or her to start a hardware company. We’ve seen diverse answers to this question, but answers tend to center around hardware being required to create the solution they want to build, meeting a market demand, and scratching a personal itch that others have too.

The founders from our teams FieldVision and Privacy Labs (now Helm) didn’t necessarily set up to create a hardware startup but knew that to achieve their product vision they would have to incorporate hardware. Privacy Labs tested their product fit by delivering just software to customers who could run it on their own Raspberry Pi. While this allowed them to validate customer demand, Giri and Dirk knew that they’d have to deliver hardware to create a simple, elegant, and expandable solution.

Seriforge and FarmWise’s founders let the customers tell them exactly what to build. In both cases, the founders of these companies had never built hardware before, but knew that if they did, they could deep wells of customer demand. Both teams chose to partner with Lemnos because we could help them build out their hardware teams and expertise. Eric Gregory from Seriforge had strong software development and leadership skills from leading teams at companies like Pixar, so he was able to extend those skills into leading combined hardware and software engineering.

Some of our founders had a personal passion for what they were going to build. They built the solution for themselves, and they knew others just like them were hungry the same product. The founders at Revolve, Pantry (now Byte Foods), Bia, and Nima all started this way. Cheryl from Bia was an accomplished leader with experience at companies like Yahoo!, but she was also an accomplished distance runner who longed for a sports tracking watch optimized for women. The product didn’t exist so she built it!

Below you’ll find the origin stories from the founders interviewed for Into The Forge. You see many different paths explained throughout the first two seasons of the podcast. Enjoy, and get ready for more stories in Season Three, coming soon!

 

From Season Two:

Noah Ready-Campbell, Built Robotics

I grew up in rural Vermont and worked for my dad pretty much every summer. I did a lot manual labor, construction, carpentry, and carpenter’s assistant kind of work. When I was thinking about robotics, I thought, “Maybe there’s a way to bring robotics into construction in some way, shape, or form.” In our vision for the company, we automate heavy equipment to make construction safer, faster, and more affordable.

 

Kavodel Ohiomoba and Andy Kittler, FieldVision

Kav: My background was in sports and tech. After I graduated from college, I worked for a company that built a sort of “Moneyball” for various NBA teams. Our first client was the Golden State Warriors, and they have this unique blend of cameras. Those cameras track the XY coordinates of every player and the XYZ of the ball. I took that data set and said, “When Stephen Curry goes left of the ball screen, here’s what he scores, and when the Warriors run a small small with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, here’s what they do”. That was my foray into computer vision and technology. After that, I had this idea to bring that down to the youth level. The only way to do it was hardware and here we are.

 

Jon Hollander and Eric Gregory, Seriforge

Jon: My process was kind of unusual. I was at an art exhibition on mathematical knitting. This mathematician, she had knitted these incredible three-dimensional shapes out of yarn, Klein bottles, Möbius strips, all these really complicated three-dimensional curved manifolds. I thought that she had just reprogrammed this machine that they used to make fighter planes or racecars and just reprogrammed it to make these mathematical sculptures. I was talking to the artist and she’s said, “No, I did these all by hand. I think everything like that is made by hand, to be honest.”

I didn’t believe her. I didn’t really know too much about the field, so I went online and started looking for a YouTube video of this mysterious machine that was being used to make all these carbon fiber parts. It didn’t exist. It was General Electric making fan blades by hand—1,700 pieces of carbon fiber, 300+ hours to make these fan blades. I thought, “This is insane. This is a 21st century material. You’re literally making things that go into space and you’re doing it using the same skill set as 19th century, pre-industrial revolution craftspeople!” Where are the machines that they use to make these composite parts? I thought, “This would be an interesting problem to crack.”

 

Amir Hirsch of Flybrix

We started thinking about building flying cameras. This was 2014. There was a lot of hype around drones at the time. So I entered into the drone space, intrigued by the opportunity first to make flying cameras, and secondly to explore pocketable designs and industrial designs that allow a drone to fold up. In that process, we were using Lego bricks for prototyping. We 3D printed these little connectors to hold the motor onto a Lego brick, and we were using the Legos as part of our way of exploring different industrial design options. We realized that we were sitting on top of a pretty cool product idea, and we decided that we would take that to market.

 

Dave Merrill and Clint Cope of Elroy Air

Dave: We are a transportation company in the aerospace space. We are developing a system to carry goods, to carry cargo by air over hundreds of miles. Clint and I realized it could be done and that it could change the world if it was done, and that we were uniquely suited to do it. That was so exciting that we just got started immediately.

 

Sébastien Boyer and Thomas Palomares of FarmWise

Thomas: When we finished our graduate studies, we were interested in ways that computer vision and natural learning could improve people’s lives. My grandparents were farmers, so it has always been a field in which I was really interested. We started to talk to a lot of farmers, understand their daily problems and what were the issues preventing them from going fully organic. We realized they were using a lot of pesticides because they didn’t have a better solution or because it was a very harsh process to do manually. We felt like we could come up with a way of making their job easier and moving them to a more sustainable way of farming.

 

Josh Ouellette and Randy Shults of RavenOps

Josh: It really goes back to undergrad for me. My focus at MIT was on aerospace control systems. Which I really liked because I’ve always liked software, but at the same time there’s this kind of magical moment that happens in controls, where I’ve got this lifeless block of motors, actuators, and sensors. Then you throw the switch, and the control system kicks in. As a company, we’re focused on swarm robotics, of multiple units working together, which we call “heterogeneous multi-unit robotic systems.” That same thing takes place again, but now at the systems level. So it’s not just one robot coming to life; it’s all of these robots in a dynamic system.

 

Sankarshan Murthy, Prahlad Athreya, and Garrett Rayner of Bumblebee Spaces

Sankarshan: We didn’t start off thinking it would be a hardware company. I was trying to solve a problem of how we use space in our home. The user-experience around the house is very fragmented. How you rent, how you furnish, how you store things, how you retrieve things, how you lose things. The whole UX is broken. The way we compensate for it is paying a lot for housing to stay where we need to live. If we’re getting priced out of neighborhoods, we are now having a poor quality of life by having long commutes, being stuck in traffic, and spending less time with family. Where we live and how we live—there’s a disconnect. We want to fix that by creating space essentially. So we’re making space using robotics and AI.

 

Giri Sreenivas and Dirk Sigurdson of Privacy Labs (now Helm)

Giri: The idea for Privacy Labs was motivated by what we were learning about government mass surveillance and the extent to which large companies were making this possible. It was really about working through some different concepts and realizing that this was the one that we felt the most passionate about.

Dirk: I’d say that the Edward Snowden revelations were pretty critical and instrumental to us starting this company. I, personally, had been pretty hesitant about sharing personal information with corporations for a long period of time, but once we came to the realization that it wasn’t just corporate surveillance, it’s also government surveillance that is becoming a big concern, that really gave us a good push to get into this space.

 

Matt Delaney, Kevin Peterson, and Jason Calaiaro of Marble

Matt Delaney: It wasn’t about hardware. It was about robotics. It was about realizing that robotics is finally taking off and the ability to actually start a company to build robots that solve real problems. Now we live in a world where all these trends have converged to make building complex, mobile robots that can solve interesting tasks for humanity.

 

From Season One:

Chris Bruce of Sproutling

I feel like I worked on a lot of products that are “sugar water,” to use the phrase from Steve Job’s biography. I wanted to work on something that I care about. I wanted to work on something that I could spend 10-15 years at, building a big company. It’s a very passionate project and it has to do with kids, which I have two of, and I love them dearly. That’s pretty much why I decided to focus on products that help families have better, easier tech.

 

Ilya Polyakov of Revolve Robotics

Being a long-time robotics guy, I really was against the idea of a non-roaming robot. I was convinced that this is a good idea when I was Skyping with my wife in New York. She was with my six-month-old baby, and we’re using a tablet. She’s fumbling with it, my daughter’s trying to eat the tablet, and that just doesn’t work. She needs to be able to get up, walk around with a baby, and I need to handle the aiming of the tablet. So originally, I made this thing for myself, but I figured if I need it, a lot of other people need it.

At the same time, as a company, we were working on a roaming telepresence robot. We saw a lot of crazy technical hurdles with that, like navigation and doors and Wi-Fi holes, and we were like, “What a minute, we can solve this problem with a stand.”

 

Peter Platzer of Spire

I am a high energy and fusion physicist. I got really lucky in my youth. I got to spend some time at CERN and the Max Planck Institutes, and got to touch very, very large hardware. I was crawling through a fusion reactor at the Max Planck Institutes that I was writing my thesis on. It was an unparalleled inspirational experience.

And I always had this drive towards space, but it was, back then, too government-driven, so I followed my other passion, which was business, and joined the Boston Consulting Group. They then sent me to Harvard Business School, where I ended up starting a finance company—a quantitative training company. Then I ended up going back to International Space University in France and spent a year researching and studying anything about nanosatellites and the space industry, everything from the finance side, to the business side, to the legal side, which then culminated in a summer at NASA here in California, which then launched us into NanoSatisfi.

 

Art Tkachenko of Pantry

I realized there was such a tremendous potential in RFID (radio frequency identification) and it was underutilized due to, I thought, an incorrect way of deploying the technology and taking advantage of the technology. At one point, in my free time, I came across an article saying that a big part of grocery sales for grocery stores comes from selling only 90 SKUs or 90 different products. But if you go to Safeway there’s 30,000 SKUs.

I thought, “Why can’t I just go to my lobby and get [my groceries]?” I live in an apartment complex in the city. It’s a very busy commute to get to any grocery store; it takes me half an hour. So I realized that this could be done and we could have food available at the places we spend most of our time, and done in a very elegant, user-friendly way.

 

Cheryl Kellond of Bia

I am the classic late blooming adult-onset athlete. I was approaching my 40th birthday. I was in a rut, and a friend convinced me to do a triathlon. I had never run before. I barely swam before. I was not an athlete, but I fell in love with the sport. As I progressed in my abilities, I was looking for gear. I was looking for a training watch and an online training site that met my needs. I tried everything on the market and quickly came to the conclusion that they all sucked. They hurt my wrist to wear. They didn’t do what I needed. I mean, I’m an MIT grad, and when I have to crack open an instruction manual to learn a sports watch, you’ve got to be kidding me. I thought, “Gosh, we could solve this problem better.”

 

John Stanfield of Local Motion

Clement and I co-founded Local Motion in 2010, just out of Stanford. I came out of a product design program there in the mechanical engineering group and Clement was MS&E (Management, Science, and Engineering). We had an idea to try and solve local mobility by building a four-wheeled plug-in electric vehicle that was designed from the ground up to share—something that was designed to be sold to places and not people and really focus on the local sharing of mobility. What we found after about two years was that our real true value in the marketplace was to offer that sharing ability to existing infrastructures. We separated the vehicle from a small piece of hardware and software platform that we now sell to large fleets across the United States and Europe.

 

Dave Merrill of Sifteo, Elroy Air, and Lemnos

Sifteo started at the MIT Media Lab. Jeevan and I reconnected there as graduate students. We recognized that we both shared this interest in how to make our interactions with information more effective and to evolve them past the current state-of-the-art interfaces. The idea for Sifteo cubes as a game system basically happened when we were deciding to start the company. The moment that we realized we were really on to something was when the talk that I gave at TED went on the Internet and just went wild. It was kind of a viral success before there was such a thing as Kickstarter. I would look at that talk going online as our equivalent Kickstarter moment, except that I wish I had a pre-order button next to it. I did not.

 

Adam Ellsworth, Founder of 8-Bit Lit

About two years ago, a friend and I were discussing an idea for a touch-sensitive lamp for his two-year-old son. We came up with the idea of the question mark from Super Mario Bros. We made one for ourselves. We used TechShop, which has a lot of tools that you can prototype with: laser cutters, CNC mills, etc. We threw it up on Etsy, not really thinking much about it, but it got a ton of blog attention. We got a large number of orders right away. We made 1,000 of them at home in San Francisco, by hand, over three months. That actually turned out to be a helpful experience for production later because I really understood what it was like to set up a production line, to have to try to establish efficiencies, and to work through the line.

 

Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor from Nima

Shireen: It really started with a personal issue of mine. I had suffered for a number of years from not being able to eat out without getting sick. I had severe food allergies, and gluten, specifically, was the most intense. I had always gone out, lived a pretty social life, and then I got diagnosed in college. It completely changed my life to lead a diet-restricted lifestyle. Once I found out what I was actually allergic to, it was very hard to avoid some of those foods while eating in social situations. So, I had this issue and put up with getting sick. I met a lot of people who also had the similar issues. Then I had the great privilege of meeting Scott at MIT, and we had a shared passion about helping people live healthier lives.