Boston’s Hardware Startups Need an Identity

2/8/13Follow @bchemel

Tuesday night, just north of a hundred startuppers crowded into Greentown Labs in Boston’s no-longer-ironically-named Innovation District for the inaugural Boston Hardware Startup Meetup.

Boston’s hardware sector, dominated for years by well-funded startups building networking boxes, now encompasses everything from “quantified self” consumer devices to wind turbines to smart lights to nanotech to…well, the category is quite broad. And though the local tech press’s love affair with the consumer Web that ran right up until the Facebook IPO has already segued into a new focus on enterprise software, the most interesting part of the Boston startup scene may actually be this collection of interesting, scrappy, and resourceful companies.

Tuesday’s meetup, inspired by a series of similar events in tech hubs nationwide, was organized, assembled, and ably emceed by Ben Einstein of Bolt, a new hardware incubator space in the Financial District. The structure was simple—time to socialize, a presentation from the sponsoring company, then short pitches from three hardware startups at different stages of existence. The diversity of these four companies was a great reflection of the scene.

Hardi Meybaum, the founder and CEO of GrabCAD (and sponsor of the evening’s festivities), got things going with a demo of his company’s online marketplace for mechanical design and an impassioned story of his vision for its future. The crowd, a mix of founders, technologists, and hobbyists, with a VC or two thrown in for diversity, ate it up—it’s clear that Hardi and his team have identified a major pain point for a lot of folks in the mechanical CAD community.

Next on the agenda was the team from Force Field Labs talking about Canary, their “home security appliance,” for lack of a better term. Pitched as “Nest for home security,” this smartly designed device is designed to sit unobtrusively in any centralized location in your small house or apartment and use its multi-modal sensor package (video, audio, carbon monoxide, humidity, and more) to alert you in real time via any iOS device of any issues, without the high upfront cost, long-term contracts, and miserable user experience of old-school security solutions. Again, a lot of resonance with the crowd and encouraging early signs of product-market fit.

Rest Devices, the third company showcased, is also combining low-cost sensing hardware with a slick mobile interface, but for a completely different type of product—an intelligent infant “onesie” that tracks respiration to bring parents peace of mind while their little ones doze. Carson Darling, Rest’s founder, showed off the respiration sensor’s capabilities by wearing an earlier prototype sized for adults and aimed at sleep apnea detection.

Finally, Eric Smith from Keystone Tower Systems talked about his company’s impressive wind turbine tower-building technology. No iOS apps or shiny consumer hardware here—Eric and his team are designing a massive and complex machine that can be deployed directly to the site where a wind farm is going up, and turn raw steel plate directly into custom-built towers.

My biggest takeaway from this gathering, other than feelings of enthusiasm and optimism, was a suspicion that the diversity of Boston’s hardware scene is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The tremendous variations in maturity, target market, and technology mean that we are far from a monoculture (like, say, infrastructure boxes for telcos in the early 00′s), though it also has kept the sector from really developing a shared identity.

Events like this, bringing together such an enthusiastic and diverse group of folks, will no doubt help to turn this loose confederation into a coherent community. Einstein plans to turn the Meetup into a recurring event, so visit http://www.meetup.com/Boston-Hardware-Startup-Meetup/ to join the movement.

Brian Chemel is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Digital Lumens. Follow @bchemel

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