by Mike Geyer, Autodesk Director of Evangelism, & Emerging Technology
Hardware is hot — and poised to get hotter. Venture capital investment in connected device hardware startups reached approximately $1.48B in 2014, more than triple the amount two years earlier.Meanwhile, the ‘fairy tale’ acquisitions of Dropcam, Nest, Beats, and Oculus — and the IPO of GoPro — fuel public interest and momentum for new startups in hardware.
Hardware is the new software.
The past decade made it increasingly easy for anyone with a bright idea to launch an app, thanks to the emergence of support factors as varied as crowdfunding, cloud infrastructure and open source communities like GitHub.
Today, an entrepreneur might just as easily bring a viable hardware product to market. Credit is due here to many of the same factors — but also to a new breed of facilities that allow people to turn their bright ideas into physical products more quickly than ever before.
The Keyboardio ergonomic keyboard, which was incubated at Highway1 and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign.
These facilities range from hackerspaces and makerspaces — where a user can tinker away and build an initial prototype — to more sophisticated hardware incubators that can help individuals turn a prototype into a working, production-ready product within a matter of months.
While there are differences in how these spaces operate, their net effect is the same: they are subverting the traditional manufacturing model and spawning a new generation of innovative hardware startups in the process.
A Wave of Opportunity
Products like the Pebble smartwatch and the Nest thermostat — as well as other hardware innovations like SmartThings or littleBits — showed that the next great hardware products won’t be born within the walls of large, traditional corporations, but in garages, makerspaces, and hardware incubators.
The number of incubators and accelerators is growing quickly.
While there are well over a hundred incubators for early-stage software companies, the number focused on hardware has lagged significantly. In the last year though, the number has grown from single-digits to upwards of two dozen in the US alone. Europe and Asia are joining the fray as well with stand-out shops like Unternemertum and Hardware.co in Germany, and DMM in Japan.
Even well known brands like Jaguar Land Rover and Intel have taken note of this development and sought to emulate their nimble competitors by taking steps towards creating their own incubators. In doing so, these companies aim to support creative new entrepreneurs while rapidly pushing new ideas into reality.
A similar mindset can be found at the Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator (LACI), where accelerating innovation and reviving manufacturing is at the core of their mission.
“LACI was started nearly four years ago to help create manufacturing jobs in the heart of Los Angeles, an area that was once a vibrant manufacturing center,” said Erik Steeb, LACI’s vice president of portfolio company programs. “Creating a lasting manufacturing capability via startups means getting design right early on, delivering an effective prototyping capability, and providing the necessary support and venture funding infrastructure required to help startups succeed.”
Supporting the Movement
At Autodesk, we see the exciting developments within hardware incubators as part of a larger transformation in the making of all things. New tools for prototyping and fabrication have become more accessible to everyone. At the same time, products are becoming aware and more interconnected — all as consumers expect a significantly more customized experience.
The nexus of these trends has spawned a new wave of entrepreneurs guided by a fresh philosophy of design thinking. We feel that Autodesk’s strong heritage in creativity and design tools requires us to provide meaningful support for this emerging community.
As a result, we’re building relationships throughout the hardware scene and focusing on incubators and accelerators in particular, as we see them as the greatest opportunity to help move the conversation forward.
Most of our partners are in North America — like Highway1 in San Francisco, Bolt in Boston and AlphaLab in Pittsburgh, as pictured below — but we’re expanding relationships to Europe and Asia as the movement grows globally.
We’re contributing to the vibrancy of the ecosystem in several ways.
- First and foremost, Autodesk provides hardware incubators with software grants that give the incubated companies free access to powerful tools for design, engineering, and manufacturing. One of the most important among these is Fusion 360, a 3D CAD/CAM tool that connects the entire product development process in a single cloud-based tool.
- Autodesk also offers training and assistance on the software — free of charge — to ensure users can get the most benefit out of the tools available to them.
- Beyond the software, the Autodesk team is willing to provide design assistance to startups. For example, Autodesk helped startup keyboard.io, an alumni of thePCH Highway1 incubator program, to tackle a design challenge with their customizable ergonomic keyboard.
- Additionally, Autodesk advises on the design and build-out of new fabrication facilities. LACI is building a 40,000 square foot facility in downtown Los Angeles to provide startups a place to work and build prototypes. The team responsible for the Autodesk workshop at Pier 9 in San Francisco helped consult on the facility buildout, providing input on everything from equipment, layout, and scheduling, to management of city ordinances and regulations.
- Last but not least, Autodesk keeps a focus on “the human element” by maintaining office hours, hosting events, and finding ways to make useful connections and introductions. After all, the success of an ecosystem depends as much on people as technology.
“Entrepreneurs always remind us that hardware is hard, but one thing that makes prototyping a more seamless iterative process are the design and simulation tools made possible through our partnership with Autodesk,” said Scott Cohen, co-founder and partner at New Lab in New York City. “Our portfolio companies, such as FX Industries and Honeybee Robotics, are using all kinds of Autodesk software – Inventor, Simulation FEA and DFM, Alias, Sketchbook – to go all the way from concept to real-world manufacturing. Autodesk software tools combined with our prototyping shop bring designers in close proximity to early prototypes and thus really accelerate the process of creating viable, impactful products.”
An Exciting Future
When building a new hardware product becomes as easy as making an iPhone app, we will have truly ushered in a golden era of innovation. Our dead, dumb devices of today will give way to enchanted products that can add unimagined value to our lives.
Hardware incubators are playing a crucial role in making this new industrial revolution a reality, and Autodesk will continue to forge meaningful relationships to provide concerted support within the space. We’re excited to see the future of making things unfold.
About the Author
Director, Evangelism, & Emerging Technology
Mike has worked in an open pit mine, an aluminum smelter, heavy construction, and as a cognitive sciences research assistant prior to joining Autodesk. His interests include additive manufacturing, advanced automation, machine learning, wisdom of the ancients, and the alchemy that occurs at the intersection of art and science. He is part of the emerging services and products group at Autodesk and enjoys helping the company lead the new industrial revolution.