HAXLR8R Startups Report Back from Shenzhen, the Hardware Candyland

6/20/12Follow @wroush

HAXLR8R may sound like a geeky vanity license plate number, but it’s actually a Shenzhen, China-based startup accelerator—one of a new breed of business incubators, along with San Francisco-based Lemnos Labs, focused on hardware startups rather than software companies. I profiled HAXLR8R back in February, when it had just admitted its first batch of startups, and Monday afternoon I headed to Autodesk’s Innovation Gallery in downtown San Francisco for the accelerator’s first demo day.

As a hyperlocal publication, Xconomy wouldn’t normally cover an accelerator based in China. But HAXLR8R (pronounced “Hackccelerator”) has lots of ties to the Bay Area: many of the mentors and advisors in its network are here, as are many of the angel and venture investors who might support its companies in the future. And the modern accelerator model was basically born here, in the form of Mountain View, CA-based Y Combinator. So it made sense for HAXLR8R’s co-founders, Cyril Ebersweiler and Sean O’Sullivan, to bring the nine companies to San Francisco for the final week of the program, capped by Monday’s pitches to investors and media.

Below are my summaries of each presentation, which I’ve arranged starting with the most promising and progressing to those that seem, to me, like long shots. I admit that this is a totally subjective and opinionated way to organize such a list. But having attended dozens of similar demo-day events at accelerators in Boston and the Bay Area and listened to pitches from hundreds of companies, I’ve learned to trust my gut reactions. By definition, companies coming out of an accelerator are still at an incredibly early stage in their development, so there’s never much hard data on whether their products fit a market need. The hardware business is a particularly perilous one for startups, given regulatory hurdles and the high costs of getting products to the mass-manufacturing stage. Unless a company has an absolutely killer team and an idea with a forehead-slappingly-obvious market, my guess is that they’re going to have a hard time—and to me, only a few of the HAXLR8R companies have all of those ingredients at this point.

But smoothing the way forward was exactly why HAXLR8R picked the industrial city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, as its base of operations. “Shenzhen is like Candyland for electrical engineers and mechanical engineers,” says O’Sullivan, a software tycoon who earned his fortune in the digital mapping market by co-founding MapInfo in 1986 (long before the advent of consumer GPS or online maps) and bankrolled the accelerator through his venture fund SOS Ventures. “All the workshops you need for prototyping are there. You can get manufacturing done inexpensively and with very rapid turnaround. That makes it possible for hardware companies to create products that are priced to compete without requiring millions of dollars in backing from venture capitalists.”

Here’s my rundown of the nine HAXLR8R companies.

Nomiku

Abe Fetterman of Nomiku

You may have heard of sous vide, the slow-cooking technique favored by many top chefs for its consistent, juicy results. It’s not difficult–you just throw food in an airtight plastic bag and heat it in lukewarm water for anywhere from couple of hours to a couple of days. But up to now, the equipment required for consistent warming has been bulky and expensive.

Nomiku has come up with an “immersion circulator”—similar to an immersion blender—that you clip to the inside of a standard kitchen pot, where it keeps water at the correct temperature for as long as you need. It’s got a simple temperature-adjustment knob, a simple display showing the water temperature, and a snazzy industrial design. The husband-and-wife team behind the project (Lisa Qiu is a restaurant veteran, Abe Fetterman is a plasma physicist) hope to raise $200,000 on Kickstarter to build a manufacturable prototype. They posted their Kickstarter page at noon on June 18, and as this article went up they’d already collected $52,000 in pledges.

Kindara

“Today women have iPhones and Fitbits and they can drive electric cars, but when it comes to information about getting pregnant, the best technology that exists is basically a plastic stick that you pee on,” complains Kati Bicknell. Her dissatisfaction with that scenario is the inspiration behind Kindara, which is building an iPhone-centric system designed to help women track their ovulation cycle so they’ll know when to try for pregnancy. The Kindara app connects to an oral thermometer made by iCelsius, allowing women to track their basal body temperature, which spikes right after ovulation. The startup hopes to earn money through … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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