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HAX Accelerator’s Startups Get Healthy

HAX, formerly Haxlr8r, has been incubating hardware startups since 2011, taking 65 companies to market so far. The majority of them have done something involving low-cost applications of robotics, said HAX program director Duncan Turner, speaking at the accelerator’s spring launch event in San Francisco on 11 May.

But this year, with HAX launching its 6th class of startups, there’s a new trend coming on strong, Turner said—companies aiming to lower the cost of medical technology, for either medical professionals or consumers.

This season, six of HAX’s 15 startups are aiming at that niche.

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The Best of Maker Faire Bay Area 2015

Maker Faire Bay Area 2015—a festival of exhibits from tinkerers, tech enthusiasts, and crafters—celebrated its 10th anniversary this weekend.“It’s probably our most complex event,” says Dale Dougherty, Maker Faire founder. “It invites people from all around the world to come show what they’re doing.”  

I experienced most of it including dancing robots, animatronic amusements, skating bots, and a DIY roller coaster.  Here are the highlights:

Maker Faire’s “Dark Room” was like walking into a nightclub of glow-in-the-dark pop locking robots. A 4.5-meter diameter dome, covered with 84-autonomous delta robots with LEDs wired to their heads, instantly lit up the room.

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Here Comes the Keurig of Everything

Keurig. It’s not the only single-serve coffee maker, but its name has become synonymous with single-serve beverage-making device. It’s been criticized by environmentalists, but Keurig’s dominance grows—every time I walk down the coffee aisle of my local grocery store I see more shelf space dedicated to K-cups (the Keurig pod) and less to traditional coffee and tea.

So it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs look at Keurig’s success and think, “Hey, I could make a smart machine that’s a Keurig for (insert your favorite consumable here).”

This week, I went to two startup launch events: HAX, formerly Haxlr8r, a hardware accelerator based in Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco; and MakerCon’s Launch Pad startup competition, held in San Francisco. And there was a Keurig-for-something at each.

At HAX, Bartesian introduced a Keurig for cocktails, in particular, drinks made with vodka, gin, rum, or tequila. The gadget has four tanks—one for each spirit—and disposable single-drink capsules containing concentrated, shelf stable juices, syrups, sugars, bitters, and other mixers. They’re starting with six “flavors,” three familiar drinks—Sex on the Beach, the Classic Cosmo, and the Margarita—and three of their own blends. The concept is limited—I don’t see how they could add a carbonated mixer, for example.

I sampled the margarita, and I have to say I was disappointed. The drink was horrid; the founders told me that’s because they used cheap tequila. Hint to startups—if you’re trying to show off the skills of a robot bartender, spring for a top shelf brand. Pricing wasn’t announced, but company founders indicated it would be around the cost of a Keurig, which puts it under $200. Bartesian will be launching on Kickstarter in a month.

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Is Lily a Drone? Or Is It a Camera?

Antoine Balaresque and Henry Bradlow are worried. They have developed an autonomous flying video camera for use in filming action sports on land and water, capturing scenery while hiking and sightseeing, and covering family events (so everyone gets in the picture). They think they’ve made it simple enough that a parent could just toss it in the air and forget about it while coaxing a child to take her first steps. They have enough seed money ($1 million in investment) to get the prototype they’ve been developing for the past year into production. The technology is coming along nicely; they’ve been able to hire the experts in computer vision, controls, and industrial design that they need, and they’re on track to ship in February 2016.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that their product looks an awful lot like a drone—and they don’t want to be a drone company, they want to be a camera company.

Says Bradlow: “People buy drones because they want to fly something. That’s not what this is, this is a camera. You frame shots with it; you can’t control its flight.”

There are drones, Balaresque says, that carry cameras. These cameras send images to a cell phone, and users can look at the images while separately using the drones’ flight controls to position them for particular shots. Lily is nothing like that, he insists. You don’t fly it, you take pictures with it.

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Women in Tech Take Over (the San Jose Marriott)

Welcomes, introduction of the organizers, general announcements, information about lunch tickets—we all know how conferences start, and generally only listen with half an ear. The beginning of the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership (WIE ILC) Conference, held last month in San Jose, was no different. Until over the loudspeakers came these words:

“All of the restrooms on the second floor of the Marriott have been converted to women only...There is a nursing mother’s room on the third floor; refrigeration is available.”

The audience broke into applause—both because the bathroom lines were likely to be reasonable, and because these announcements seemed symbolic, perhaps of the moment when women in engineering came into their own.

This was not the first WIE ILC; it follows on a similar event held in San Francisco last year. But, with 700-plus attendees, more than 100 speakers, and 20 companies exhibiting, it was more than twice as big. And it was loaded with STEM star-power, with AMD CEO Lisa Su, Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek, and Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby among the speakers.

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Madame Tussauds Wax Museum Seeks Silicon Valley Icon

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is known for its eerily lifelike wax replicas of celebrities. The San Francisco branch of Madame Tussauds began honoring nearby Silicon Valley in 2012, with a wax replica of Steve Jobs. The museum added Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2014.

And now they’re looking for a third “Bay Area Tech Innovator” to be immortalized in wax (and made available for selfies). And they are crowdsourcing the final selection through online voting.

After an open nomination period, Madame Tussauds narrowed the finalists to ten: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In; George Lucas, founder of Lucasfilm; Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium; Jane Metcalf, cofounder of Wired; Edwin Catmull, cofounder of Pixar; Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo; Larry Page, cofounder of Google; Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple; and Mark Benioff, founder of Salesforce.

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Finding People In the Nepal Earthquake Zone

Is my friend/relative/colleague OK? After a disaster like Saturday’s Nepal earthquake, that’s a question people around the world with any kind of connection to the disaster zone have been asking.

Both Google and Facebook have in recent years developed tools intended to make that question easier to answer, and both companies quickly turned their tools on in the wake of the Nepal quake.

Google activated its “Person Finder” missing persons tracker. A concerned friend or relative types in the name of the person they are looking for into a search box or texts "search" to 6040 in Nepal, 91-9773300000 in India, or 1 650-800-3978 in the United States. On the other end, people can submit information about someone in the earthquake zone—including a description and whether or not the person is known to be safe. At this writing, Google had 5900 records active.

Facebook is asking users to let their friends know that they are safe via “Safety Check,” launched last year. When the company turns this tool on, Facebook’s servers determine which users are in the disaster area, considering their listed home city, last location identified by the company’s “Nearby Friends” technology if they use that app, or the identity of the city in which users last used the Internet to access Facebook. The system then pushes a request to them asking them to click on a button to indicate that they are OK. People outside the disaster area can use Safety Check to find out which friends are in the area and whether or not they have checked in as safe.

A Cheap, Ubiquitous Earthquake Warning System

When an earthquake hit California’s Napa Valley in 2014, ShakeAlert, a demonstration earthquake warning system under development by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), gave a 5 to 10 second warning. Had such a system been in place in Nepal this month, residents of Kathmandu would have had about 15 to 20 seconds to get out of the most dangerous buildings or take cover where possible.

Though it doesn’t seem like much, that’s also enough time to trigger automated shutdown systems for rapid transit (the experimental system is already tied to the BART transportation network), nuclear power facilities, or semiconductor manufacturing plants. Japan has had an earthquake alert system pin place for several years; it shut down bullet trains and factories when the 2011 Tohoku quake struck and sent cell phone “take cover” warnings.

These kinds of systems come at a high price, however. Likely too high for a country like Nepal. The USGS estimates that the cost of an earthquake early warning system for the west coast of the United States would be US $38.3 million for the equipment alone, and an additional $16.1 million annually for maintenance and operations. California has some federal funding for rolling out the system, but nowhere near enough.

But Battalgazi Yildirim, founder of Palo Alto-based Zizmos, thinks there’s better, more affordable approach to earthquake warning. And, with seed money from the National Science Foundation, he’s about to start a widespread test of his idea in California in May.

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Silicon Valley Gets Ready to Code for Cuba

This weekend, Facebook is opening its Menlo Park campus to teams Coding for Cuba.

The challenge: “Build hardware or software tools that can be used by people in Cuba for connectivity and access to information, entrepreneurial support, or journalism and digital advocacy.”

The two-day hackathon, to be held April 25 and 26th, will end in a competition for $7000 in prizes, judged by a panel that includes folks from Facebook, Yahoo, Salesforce, and Stanford. It’s not too late to sign up here. You can also follow the ideas that develop here.

And I’ll fill you in on the winning projects when they are announced.

Android Creator Andy Rubin's Playground for Hardware Startups

Look out Haxlr8r; move over Lemnos Labs, you might have competition for that next batch of baby startups. Android co-founder, Apple nemesis, and former Web TV engineer Andy Rubin left Google last year with plans to launch a hardware incubator. At the time, Rubin was running robotics projects at Google.

This month, Rubin unveiled the basic details, like the namePlayground Global—and the investors, which include Foxconn, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Seagate.

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