Got Hardware? Dragon Innovation Helps Big Names Get Built

3/7/13Follow @curtwoodward

A few months before his little startup company became a poster child for the crowdfunding revolution, Eric Migicovsky had one of those moments of serious panic.

He’d been through the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program, and attracted some early money. But bigger investors weren’t willing to back the project he’d been working on—and when the deals fell through, the future of the Pebble smart watch suddenly seemed pretty dicey.

That’s when Scott Miller got a call. As the CEO of Dragon Innovation, a Boston-area firm that connects hardware startups with high-tech manufacturers, he’d been looking forward to helping get Pebble off the ground.

“And I just remember saying, `Don’t worry about it, it’s going to be fine. Get a beer, take a deep breath, and hang in there. There’s good days and bad days,’” Miller recalls. “And then roll forward, I think to mid-April—I got a note from Eric saying, `Uh, Scott, I think we need you guys back.’ And that’s when they raised $200,000 in an hour.”

Miller may have just been trying to soothe a panicked partner when he said it was going to be OK. But he’d also been through the roller-coaster ride of building high-tech products before—at MIT, then at Disney’s Imagineering unit, and finally in a decade at iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT).

These days, he’s helping a lot more entrepreneurs like Migicovsky.

Dragon Innovation, the firm that Miller founded with other veterans of iRobot’s Chinese supply and manufacturing operation, has increasingly added crowdfunded projects to its list of hardware startup clients. And that roster is pretty impressive: 3D printer companies like MakerBot and Formlabs; fun mini-robotics startups like Romotive and Orbotix; intelligent LED maker Digital Lumens; and manufacturing robot provider Rethink Robotics.

There could be plenty more in the future. The combination of powerful, cheap design and computing tools, overseas manufacturing, and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter points to a near future where product designers can get market validation and start cranking out consumer products well before taking on traditional venture financing.

Miller

Miller (with a disclaimer that he’s a “terrible surfer”) says the current climate around hardware startups feels like that moment when you paddle along with a swell and look back to see the water building all around, ready to sweep you along.

“The best and the brightest aren’t going to the Googles or the Apples. They’re starting their own thing,” Miller says. “It feels like we’re just at the beginning of the hardware wave. And it’s just going to get bigger and bigger, and more powerful.”

Miller got his start building serious hardware projects at MIT, where he was part of a team that produced the “RoboTuna,” an underwater vehicle that mimicked the motions of a real fish. He then joined Disney, part of a team that built a walking triceratops robot that ran on a Corvette engine for the company’s theme parks.

But it was at a young iRobot that Miller would pick up the skills and connections that made his career. After working on … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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