Hardware is hot

At LeWeb we didn’t discuss exclusively hardware. Since the idea that the line between software and hardware is fading has been expressed before, it is clear now that giving the necessary attention to hardware startups and technology is not only a requirement, but also a reason for excitement.

Software has been, for many years, shaping behaviours and changing the world, but hardware has always been an underlying part of it. Software companies were and are easier to build and their products are more readily shipped. But now some hardware companies are surfacing that are capable of altering our reality in ways we cannot even imagine. Here are some of them.

The challenges of hardware startups

It was exciting to see Brady Forrest from Highway1 – the only hardware incubator in the world – on stage at LeWeb. He emphasized that actually building and shipping products is a dark art and it takes a lot of work and skilled, experienced people to achieve success. On the other hand, hardware products are now easier to make and there’s also the possibility to fund them through crowd funding platforms. But raising money doesn’t mean you can ship the products. That is just the beginning. Big challenges lie ahead:

Challenge #1: prototyping is just the beginning and it’s not the documentation. Creating and fine tuning a product is a year long process. And in this process, software matters a lot, because it drives interaction and will make your users love you.
Challenge #2: open source hardware business models. How you handle competition as a hardware company is a very difficult aspect to tackle. And the competition is both old and new.
Challenge #3: open APIs and open source for internet of things – how do you tackle these issues and how do you contextualize your product can make a world of difference.
Challenge #4: making big box retailers startup friendly. In order for a hardware startup to have a shot at success, it needs to work with the big retailers to make their product available to the potential market. Distribution channels are as important as ever.
Challenge #5: can i trust my devices? Privacy concerns are not only related to software, but also to hardware. Gaining your users’ trust and having a transparent product will be an essential leverage point in the IoT era.

Products like Birdi, circuit stickers, Little bits, OSHWA, Smart Things (who won the startup competition at LeWeb in 2012), Things Speak or the startups presented below are playing a part in this new wave of technological improvements which will soon become embedded in our lives.

Hardware’s potential demonstrated

Mary Huang & Anne Marie Forehand, Co-Founders, Continuum Fashion presented their take on 3D printing: creating shoes in a robots-meet-Cinderella kind of scenario. Their company does the magic behind transforming 3D computer models into 2D maps that 3D printers can read, but the applications of 3D printing in fashion are innumerable. They could eliminate the need for stocks and storage and deliver products that are customized to every user’s whim.

Stephane Marceau, Co-Founder, OMsignal presented my personal favourite wearable technology product at LeWeb. Their technology allows to create T-shirts with embedded sensors which do live EKGs and measure biometric variables. Making clothing smart opens access to various biological reactions. And imagine you can monitor all that, for yourself and your loved ones, through your smartphone, live, from the cloud. Isn’t that exciting? And the data it collects can mean crowdsourcing health & wellness and extracting life changing meaning from all this data.

Cedric Hutchings, Co-Founder & General Manager & Eric Carreel, Chairman & Co-Founder, Withings had a very bold and unexpected pitch. But the bottom line about their demo is that they have a truly incredible product. Their app is dedicated to (enter essential info here). They’re constantly working to improve it, so they’ve recently added a smart blood pressure monitor that already has medical certification. Moreover, Pulse Oxymetry, which is available for free with a firmware update of your smartphone, will measure the percentage of oxygen in your blood. And all this so you can monitor your health and motivate people to do more physical activity. I’m definitely trying it out!

James Park, Co-Founder & CEO, Fitbit was interviewed by Natt Garun, Features Editor, The Next Web about the future of the product. FitBit shipped its first unit in 2009 and now they’ve just closed a round of $43 million and are launching Fitbit Force, available in the US, their first watch product, which incorporates some smart watch features (caller ID & notifications). The product will be coming to Europe early in 2014.

For a team of 22 people, mostly in San Francisco, it’s not bad at all. And they’re planning to hire more to fuel their international growth. James admitted that selling over 30.000 products stores in 37 countries takes a lot of capital. And, as Brady Forrest mentioned as well, to achieve mass market success you need the support of retailers who have to be invested in your product.

fitbit products

In order to reach the next level, Fitbit is always conducting research on next generation sensors. They want to understand what their users need. This type of noninvasive body hacking will increasingly grow in popularity and adoption. And the next challenge that James perceives is developing software that makes sense of the massive amount of data collected through these devices, data that will become increasingly complex and denser.

Fred Potter, Founder & CEO, Netatmo made an interesting observation about what can happen in the next 10 years: 10 years go the first free VoIP line in France was inaugurated. Today, there are 23 million VoIP subscribers in France (which amount to 56% of fixed lines). The question is: what will software “eat” next? Fred says that the IoT will be much bigger than mobile and I agree.

With their Netatmo thermostats especially designed for Europe (in wired and wireless options) they want to simplify complexity. And in order to achieve greatness, Fred believes that startups should be tackling big issues, such as indoor air quality or heating efficiency, as they are themselves trying to do.

Rafi Haladjian, Founder, Sen.se presented their motion cookies for Mother, their strangely named product (who wants to be living with their “mother” at 40?). Their product enables the automation of certain aspects of life through reminders and notifications, but my thought is that it’s a bit intrusive. An 18 year old boy may not want his mother keeping tabs on his departures and arrivals through a mobile app. Plus, you have to choose your set of applications that you want to use with your product, but maybe there could be a way to simplify this product and really make is appealing to the masses, since there’s certainly potential in it.

James Siminoff, Chief Inventor, Bot Home Automation presented their cool product: Doorbot. Doorbot turns a doorbell into a video call you get on your smartphone, so you can see and talk to the person at your door. The product’s battery will last for 18 months and it uses wifi to make the call, which is simple, and very effective.

Doorbot went from concept to reality and 10.000 units shipped in less than 12 months and it seems like something that could really make it big. The startup raised $1 million in VC money and I think it will do great!

I have to say I really enjoyed myself taking a peek at all these innovative products you’ll be hearing more and more about. I was just reading Wired and I saw an ad for Nest, so this is just the beginning. I’m really excited to see what’s next!

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