A new generation of entrepreneurs and tinkerers is excited about building things, using sub-$100 hardware development kits, shared software and support from a growing community of hardware hackers and vendors cheering them on.
Seattle is still a software town.
You could even argue that it is the software town, where companies from Amazon to Zillow take on some of the biggest programming challenges.
But it may be time to break out the soldering iron.
Over the past year I’ve seen a small but growing cluster of hardware startups emerge. In general they’re using software expertise to develop Internet-connected gadgets that could end up in your house one of these days, brewing your coffee or beer, teaching your kids to play piano or watching for leaks in the basement.
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Even more companies are likely to surface later this year, judging from the huge turnout at several recent hackathons where teams of developers floated dozens of ideas for new hardware ventures.
This is partly the long-awaited “Internet of Things” gaining momentum. The concept generally refers to the proliferation of Internet-connected devices and sensors, bringing new ways to monitor, measure and control our surroundings.
It is also part of a broader tech trend in which a new generation of entrepreneurs and tinkerers is excited about building things, using sub-$100 hardware development kits, shared software and support from a growing community of hardware hackers and vendors cheering them on.
The phenomenon is similar to what happened in software a decade ago when new tools and platforms made it easier to create and publish apps and websites.
You can make a lot of magic on really low-cost hardware that you never could have done even four, five years ago.” - Adam Benzion, Hackster.io co-founder
“Now we’re seeing the same thing that’s happening in hardware,” said Adam Benzion, a Microsoft veteran who left to start a company making battery chargers for mobile devices.
Benzion sold the startup and then last August co-founded Hackster.io, an online community for hardware developers and companies. This weekend it’s hosting a hackathon in Seattle that was expected to draw about 150 developers.
“You can make a lot of magic on really low-cost hardware that you never could have done even four, five years ago,” he said.
Hardware hacking has been going on for some time but it’s finally going mainstream, with Web and app developers now building hardware, Benzion said. That, in turn, is supporting the rise of small factories and suppliers in the United States, he said, although companies still tend to end up manufacturing in Asia.
Two weeks ago, Intel hosted a similar hackathon at the University of Washington that had 380 developers register, lured partly by the chance to score one of Intel’s “Edison” hardware-development kits that came with a tiny circuit board and sensors.
About 100 stuck around through the two-day event, creating things such as an aftermarket backup camera system that wirelessly transmit images from the camera to a smartphone in the car.
The winning project — netting a $1,500 Amazon.com gift card — was a wearable device called Ensemble that uses sensors to collect biometric data. The data is streamed to a server that generates music, so the wearer composes music as they move.
Taking the next step and releasing an actual hardware product is a bigger challenge, especially in an area like Seattle that still doesn’t have the depth of hardware talent, suppliers and community that you can find in Silicon Valley.
Benzion, for instance, hooked up with a co-founder in San Francisco where they opted to locate Hacker.io’s headquarters.
Megacompanies, namely Microsoft and Amazon, have done well developing consumer electronics from their bases in the Seattle area. But it can be a challenge for newer companies in the space.
Here’s a sample of hardware startups in the region, including one in more hardware-centric Portland:
What it makes: Keyboard
Software startup veteran Kevin McCarthy and his longtime friend from Woodinville High School, Jason McVey, started the Seattle company in 2013 to build a keyboard with lighted keys to help people learn to play the piano.
The patented, $599 device works with iOS and Windows devices that display music as colored keys light up, showing beginners which keys to press. It works with a companion cloud service that tracks progress and sells sheet music in partnership with publisher Hal Leonard.
“There are competitors in the software space and there are competitors in the hardware space, but there’s not someone that we’ve seen that does a really good job of integrating the two,” said McCarthy.
In two years they were able to line up a supply chain for metals, circuit boards and stainless steel molds needed for injection-molded plastic parts. Altogether the keyboard has 290 parts, nine circuit boards and 140 LED lights.
McCarthy, who worked at Radio Shack stores after high school, said hardware turned out to be more demanding than software, in that the product has to be fully sorted out before it’s delivered.
“It’s interesting as a software developer going into hardware. … Once you release hardware it’s released,” McCarthy said. “Software — you just put out an update.”
A lucky break came when they lined up a partnership with Sony to manufacture and distribute the keyboards, which went on sale through McCarthy’s website in January.
What it makes: Wally home sensors
Headed by Jeremy Jaech, a veteran of several Seattle software startups, Snupi is building devices based on sensor technology licensed from the UW.
“When we started, just finding the right talent was hard in this town,” he said. “Both from the consumer electronics design point of view and the manufacturing because those are things we don’t do a lot in Seattle.”
Snupi started in 2012 and in 2013 began selling “Wally” brand devices that can remotely monitor temperature changes and water intrusion. They were developed in Seattle and initially manufactured in Vancouver, Wash.
Last year Snupi partnered with Google’s Nest thermostat, so its sensors can be integrated into the Nest connected home platform. This year it’s releasing a new design that’s being manufactured in China.
My guess is that Snupi will be acquired this year. Consolidation in the “connected home” space is already under way, with big companies jockeying for position and perhaps inspiring more entrepreneurs to jump in.
Co-founder Shwetak Patel, a UW professor who developed Snupi’s wireless sensing technologies, sold another startup to Los Angeles-based Belkin in 2010. That led Belkin to open a home automation research center in Seattle last year, creating a hub that should contribute to that cluster of hardware startups.
What it makes: Connectivity and control modules
Started by a group of former Intel developers, Portland-based DADO has created a hardware platform that companies can use to add connectivity and Web services to consumer products.
The idea is to give companies such as Cuisinart a way to replace a cluster of buttons and complicated controls with a wireless computing module and a mobile app that can present a menu of options, shared recipes and other features — basically adding an “Internet of Things” experience.
Our goal all along was to develop a platform and build a platform we would configure and resell to brand partners.” - Thomas Worley, DADO CEO
DADO worked with high-end coffee-gear maker Behmor on a $599 coffee roaster and a $349 coffee brewer going on sale this fall. Both were updated to include DADO’s circuit board and operating system. That enables them to be controlled from mobile devices and sync with online services.
The brewing system can make coffee with the press of a button. Or you can use its app to adjust the brew temperature between 190 and 210 degrees, select the number of cups to be brewed and shorten or lengthen the amount of time the coffee is pre-soaked and saturated during brewing.
“You can get a drastically different cup of coffee just based on the temperature,” said Thomas Worley, co-founder and chief executive. “You can open up floral notes or sweetness or chocolaty, that type of stuff.”
The company also is working with Char-Broil on connected grills and smokers and has another prominent customer that it hasn’t yet disclosed.
DADO emerged from a contract design and engineering shop that the team started after the 2008 downturn. In 2012 it began shifting its focus toward DADO.
“Our goal all along was to develop a platform and build a platform we would configure and resell to brand partners,” Worley said.