[Festival Live Update] This is How Hardware Blows Your Mind

By October 31, 2013No Comments

Hardware in the 2010s is finally what software has been since the 80s: Accessible and dramatically effective. On the Pioneers Festival Arena stage, Ekso Bionics’ Nathan Harding, Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton and haxlr8r’s Cyril Ebersweiler told the audience why.

"Both computer science and engineering have always struggled to attract high school students," began Eben Upton, the main developer of the credit card-sized single-board computer Raspberry Pi. It might just as well be a high demand for skilled people that makes the Cambridge University alumnus say so. From 2011 to 2013, the number of hardware backers on the crowdfunding portal Kickstarter has quadrupled. That’s still only 1.57% of all projects on the site, but it has a funding volume of $446M.

I scored $1M on Kickstarter, now what?

Haxlr8r’s Cyril Ebersweiler says there is a gap between the "prototyping" and the "profit" stage in a hardware startup. He recommends considering the following:
Supplier selection
Design for manufacture
Materials selection
Quality management
Certifications, Testing

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Ekso Bionics: Military Industry, Consumers

Ekso Bionics is one of the world’s leading innovators in exoskeletons (in this context: body-external dynamic full-body scaffolds). After they reached the prototyping stage, the U.S. military was their early customer. Then, they revamped their product and approached industrial (civil) use.

"Back then our device enabled people to Frankenstein-like walking. No-one would wear it," said Nathan Harding of Ekso Bionics. Now the company sells their walking-apparatuses to private consumers. "We really chose a small market, though: Rehab centers [instead of in-patients or out-patients at general clinics]. These are people mostly in their mid-20s, they usually are very technology- positive." Ekso Bionics works with six of the top 10 rehab centers in the United States, including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Kessler foundation."

In Europe, the company has signed with rehab centers including the Glostrup Hospital (Hornbæk/DK), the Schön Klinik (Bad Aibling/D), the Sunnaas sykehus (Nesodden/ N) and the Fundacion Del Lesionado Medular (Madrid). "In 2007 we had asked ourselves: Where do we wanna get?" Harding says. Thunderous applause and cheering at #pioneers13 in Vienna’s Imperial Palace shows they have indeed gotten somewhere.

A good business plan is enough

Ekso Bionics created incredibly innovative and emotionally appealing new hardware. A hardware startup doesn’t have to do so to be successful, though, haxlr8r’s Cyril explains: "There is a sex toy startup with a product that connects to your mobile phone. Nothing really new. They manage to establish a community that shares story-like episodes to download from a marketplace. That’s what pushes it that well."

Anyway: Your factory is your most important partner

What if you don’t want to sell sex toys? "Be really good friends with your factory", Ebersweiler cites Zach "Hoeken" Smith, co-founder of MakerBot and a tech partner at haxlr8r. Eben from Raspberry Pi agrees. In his panel after Ekso Bionics he says: "Being in the same country as your factory and speaking the same language is crucial. This way you can ask the factory: ‘What do you hate about our product?’ – ‘What can we make better?’ And then you make it better."

Shenzhen or not?

Raspberry Pi is manufactured in De Cymru, that’s the Welsh word for South Wales, UK. Shenzhen in China could have been just the place to do it, but the company decided on something else. Not Cyril: He seems to love the area surrounding the Chinese city that has almost as many inhabitants as Austria. "In 2000, Shenzhen made things, but with bad reputation because of low labor costs, a subsidized currency policy by the Government of China and dubious quality. In 2013, it got better: It’s really fast, at scale, flexible, it’s high quality and still cheaper." Cyril says. Then he adds what turns out to be his favourite fact: "Today, things are not only made but also designed in Shenzhen."

Paraplegic Nikki Emerson stands up and walks

At the end of Ekso Bionics discussion, the cameras closes in on Nikki Emerson. She broke her back five years ago and is now sitting in a wheelchair in front of the Pioneers stage. During the final moments of Nathan Harding’s speech, she put on the Ekso Bionics suit. Two thirds of the audience in the front rows hold up their smartphones with REC ON. She stands up and, with the help of the suit (including two crutches) and someone behind her back (just in case), she crosses the hall. Her knees bend and her feet move left-right-left-right as she shifts her upper body weight.
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Nikki Emerson turns to the audience, standing directly in front of Pioneers Festival’s first row seats. "I’m not a person that’s complaining about being in a wheelchair all the time – I’m fine,” she states. “But this is amazing: Finally you don’t have to look up on everyone you talk to anymore. Well in this case, I even look down." The audience cheers.