Calvin Chu pitches Palette at the HAXLR8R Demo Day in San Francisco. All event images by the author for Core77.
If you were to take apart the hardware on your computer, you'd see a microcosm of the world. A simple look at a laptop computer on SourceMap, the popular software for sourcing the materials and components of just about any object and where those pieces come form, reveals an incredibly complex trade route: Unlike software, which can be hacked together regardless of location, hardware requires a lot of moving parts, from raw materials to manufacturing to assembly. It's a process that criss-crosses the globe until the final product arrives in our hands, ready to use.
Shenzhen is a key focus of HAXLR8R, which bills itself as "a new kind of accelerator program." Accepting applications twice a year from hardware startups around the world, it provides seed funding of $25,000 (with opportunities to increase that amount through additional funding paths), office space and regular mentorship on a variety of topics, from building products to pitching them. Most importantly, it offers an opportunity to live and work in Shenzhen, interacting directly with manufacturers who have the ability to take the product to scale.
"JDFI also applies to us," notes the accelerator program's website, as they list out the services and equipment they provide, including a laser cutter, 3D printer, CNC machine and in-house services like product design and small batch assembly and testing, not to mention the basic tools of business. HAXLR8R is very much a project about doing and making at the highest levels.Â And as I explored in my recent column, this intermixing of disciplines and processes undoubtedly makes for better designs.
At the third HAXLR8R Demo Day, which occurred last Thursday at the Runway Incubator (located in the same building as Twitter), ten startups had a chance to pitch the "result of 111 days of madness" in Shenzhen. From Chicago upstarts Everpurse, which manufactures smartphone-charging purses, to Lebanon-based Roadie, which produces an automatic guitar tuner with the help of a tone-sharp smartphone, companies demoed a wide variety of offerings. Some, like Palette, a modular interface of custom controllers, were at the advanced prototype stage, while others, like Petcube, an interactive device for your pet that you can control with a smartphone, were fully functional.
Though hardware is clearly the focus, many of the projects were a combination of hardware and software. In the HAXLR8R model, companies receive the most direct support with hardware, so the startups I spoke with already had highly developed software platforms. Dustcloud, an urban roleplaying game that emerged from Eastern European urban game culture, features a substantive app to create the gaming interface, with GPS, social features and a record of whom you've "dusted," or shot, with their small handgun-looking device.
Some of the projects that stood out to me made a case for hardware's unique
affordances, which can complement and enhance our app-heavy lifestyles. Vigo, which produces a simple device that hangs on your glasses, can detect your drowsiness levels by monitoring your head bobbing or eyes blinking. It's perfect for "monotonous, repetitive jobs," noted co-founder Drew Karabionos, especially when stakes are high, like cross-country driving or operation of complex machinery. BabyBe, an impressive device that uses haptic telepresence technology to help a mother or father maintain physical closeness with a newborn in an incubator, works with an app to measure the baby's vitals over time.
"It's just like Lego," noted Calvin Chu, one of the co-founders of Palette. The audience nodded in recognition, and it was clear he had used that line before and refined it for the perfect a-ha moment. "Play with publicly-available pets," said Yaroslav Axhhnyuk, CEO of Petcube, and the audience giggled at crisply-edited videos of animals interacting with the device. (Google any of these projects to find that they've already been mentioned multiple times in design blogs and others.)
Many of the projects were (wisely) launched on Kickstarter shortly before or even during the event itself, while the pitch decks, stickers and display tables communicated that JDFI attitude. The level of polish speaks to the importance of presentation in an age of making that is so dependent on a solid pitch video and product photos that can go viral. In a world of Kickstarter, pitch events and design blogs, how your display and promote your product is almost as important as the product itself.
What's not being discussed here is how this new accelerator model creates a microcosm of the globalization of production, where tech elites from major cities around the world (mostly Europe and North America) travel to southern China for manufacturing and then San Francisco to seek investing. It's like a smaller version of the crisscrossing map of how a laptop is made, with all its moving parts. But for a hardware startup, it's not just objects but the inventors and makers themselves who must travel, from one part of the world to another.
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.