GrabCAD Leads Surge in Boston-Area Hardware Design Startups
Is hardware the next big thing?
That’s certainly the impression you get in local tech circles. The question is, what are companies actually doing to advance the sector?
Historically, device firms have needed lots of time and money to get off the ground. Especially as compared to software startups, which, in the past five to seven years, have gone the way of faster, cheaper, leaner—thanks to open source software, cloud computing, and app stores.
The idea in the air is that the hardware industry—in this case, physical products and devices, rather than semiconductors and chip-making—is heading that way too. “What happens to your world when the hardware space goes through the same transition as software?” says Rob Stevens, a sales and marketing executive at GrabCAD, a 40-person tech startup based in Cambridge, MA, and Estonia.
Stevens knows both sides of the equation. He was a longtime executive at warehouse robotics firm Kiva Systems, until just before it was acquired by Amazon in early 2012. He then spent a little over a year at cloud-backup software firm Backupify before signing on with GrabCAD in January.
Last week, GrabCAD released Web-based software, called Workbench, that helps hardware designers collaborate with their peers and partners. The product is aimed at small and medium-sized design firms—basically, it lets people share their 3-D drawings, comments, and updates in one secure and private place, without requiring marketing or manufacturing partners to have CAD (computer-aided design) software, do FTP or Dropbox, or send around screenshots and e-mails.
“That’s a completely different model for how you get something built, from 10 years ago,” Stevens says. “It’s starting to look like software development.”
GrabCAD started out by building an online community of mechanical engineers and product designers around an open library of CAD files. But the startup quickly found a new market in designers and companies that need to work efficiently on proprietary products.
Now it hopes to translate its cachet among design engineers into big business from product development firms. The new software will be in beta trials until this summer, when GrabCAD will announce a “freemium” pricing plan. (Founder and CEO Hardi Meybaum told me more about the company’s strategy shift last August.)
That’s all well and good, but no one is saying the design of iPhones and cars has caught up to apps and software in terms of cost or speed. In fact, savvy entrepreneurs have written in these pages about the perils of consumer hardware and device startups, supported by crowdfunding sites, that have struggled (and largely failed) to scale up their manufacturing and distribution to meet demand.
Boston-area companies like Dragon Innovation and Bolt are trying to address these kinds of problems. Dragon is using its network to connect hardware startups with high-tech manufacturers, mostly in Asia. Bolt, whose founders include Dragon Innovation CEO Scott Miller, is a new “toolkit” program and fund for hardware entrepreneurs, focusing mainly on Internet-connected devices in sectors like health, energy, and gaming.
And another local company, Belmont Technology (led by former SolidWorks execs), is still in stealth mode, but appears to be building product-design software for the age of distributed workers. That’s a top-of-mind issue for everyone from big players like PTC, Autodesk, and SolidWorks to small startups like Lagoa, which recently opened an office in the Boston area.
So, what should we make of all the hardware hype? “I think it’s a real transformation that’s super exciting,” says Axel Bichara, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur who is involved with Belmont, Bolt, Dragon Innovation, and other startups (he led GrabCAD’s seed round at Atlas Venture too). “The reality will catch up with the hype eventually, but there are real challenges,” he says. “As good as 3D printing is, it has a long way to go.”
Stevens, of GrabCAD, would probably agree with that assessment. But he’s already aware of the big economic impact coming down the road.
“I suspect what we’ll see over time is [designers and manufacturers] will work differently. Design prices will get better,” Stevens says. “This is the beginning of an open engineering platform.”
And, he adds, “We think Boston’s a great place to be if you’re thinking about open engineering.”