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 in-app purchases of advanced charting capabilities, as well as commissions for referrals to fertility and pregnancy services and sales of connected devices such as the iCelsius thermometer. In the U.S., women spend $500 million a year on home pregnancy test kits and $4 billion a year on assisted reproductive methods, Bicknell points out. “What’s missing is something that bridges the gap between test kits and the extreme option that assisted reproductive technologies can represent,” she says.

Makeblock

Alexander Murawski of Makeblock

For hobbyists, students, educators, and other makers looking for materials to build cool stuff, there are low-end options like Legos and high-end options like industrial parts from companies like Misumi, but there isn’t much in between. Makeblocks wants to offer a selection of aluminum parts that people can use as the frameworks for robots, model cars, interactive artwork, or other creations. (One hobbyist built a smartphone-controlled robot that fetches beer bottles.) Kits including the parts, manuals, and software to build things like robots will be available for $50 to $350, according to founder Alexander Murawski. The company has already sold 100 of the kits and is currently working on finding manufacturers to make more parts.

Raigo Raamat of Shaka

Shaka

If you’ve seen the Square portable credit card reader accessory for the Apple iPhone, Shaka’s portable wind meter will look familiar. It plugs into the headphone jack and, in conjunction with Shaka’s iPhone app, gives an immediate readout of wind speed, which users can plot on a map and share with friends. The market for the device: wind surfers and kite surfers, who are “desperate for wind,” in the words of Raigo Raamat, Shaka’s Estonian founder and CEO. The startup plans to sell the gadget for $59, with the first units shipping this fall. An Android-compatible version will follow.

Sassor

Sassor is developing an “energy literacy platform” that gives home and business owners a better picture of how much electricity each of their appliances is using. The device, which attaches to the central utility box in a home, office, or business, can measure the current traveling through the wires leading to various plugs or appliances, and send the data wirelessly to the Sassor website, which shows real-time visualizations. Co-founder Takayuki Miyauchi says a subscription to the reporting system will have a starting cost of $100 per month, but businesses like restaurants could easily save more than that by identifying appliances that don’t need to be running at specific times of day.

Axio

Axio has built a Bluetooth-enabled headband equipped with EEG sensors that can measure electrical activity in the brain. The device transmits the data to a smartphone or tablet, where the user can see a visualization of their brain activity in real time and, supposedly, use the feedback to enter a more relaxed or more alert mental state. The Axio device “helps you get in the zone when it counts,” said co-founder Arye Barnehama. The company plans to make money by selling the headbands as well as premium upgrades for the mobile app.

Loccie

Loccie (pronounced Lock-ee) is developing two related products: a Web-based service that helps users discover fun things to do in the cities where they live or cities they’re visiting, and a simple mobile device that helps them navigate to the recommended locations. You start by giving the Loccie a rough idea of where you are, what you want to do, and how you’re feeling. The service will select 15 appropriate destinations and send them to the mobile device, which is called the Loccie Walkie. It has just one indicator—a light that changes colors, shifting to warmer colors as you approach a destination. The overall idea is to reinject some randomness into the experience of travel. “Too many facts kill the mystery of a journey,” says co-founder Mila Marina Burger, who is from Croatia.

Bilibot

Garratt Gallagher of Bilibot

Garratt Gallagher, co-founder of Bilibot, notes that there’s been an explosion in access to free, open-source software for programming robots, but that there hasn’t been a similar explosion in access to robot hardware. The Bilibot robot, a squat three-wheeled affair resembling a rolling coffee table, is designed as a low-cost platform that hobbyists and entrepreneurs can use to explore different applications. It’s got a computer and a Kinect motion and depth sensor inside, and can carry a 200-pound load at up to 10 miles per hour; it’s a literal platform in that the top panel has bolt-holes for various structures, such as a stand for a tablet computer or display. Gallagher says the company plans to raise operating revenue by selling its first batch of robots to vendors who want to soup up their trade-conference booths. That could give the company runway to build lower-cost robots for hobbyists and university researchers.

Portable Scores

Portable Scores founder Bob Baddeley is developing a portable LED scoreboard that can be programmed to act either as a clock, a timer, or a scorekeeper for indoor and outdoor games. “I want everyone to feel like they’re playing in a stadium,” Baddeley says. The scoreboard fits inside a backpack and mounts on a wall or tripod, and can be controlled from a special remote or from a smartphone. Baddeley hopes to raise $200,000 for the project on Kickstarter.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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