What's a Perfect Haxlr8r Product? A Robotic Wearable STEM Toy

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Photo: Robo
Robo's snap together bricks contain motors and sensors and other robot parts--and can hook up with traditional Lego bricks.

I go to a lot of startup launches, and typically find myself flipping quickly through the program looking for the rare piece of hardware among all the apps, cloud services, and other things you can look at, but not touch (except virtually). Not that an app or cloud service can’t be revolutionary, but there’s just something about hardware that’s different. For one, people starting a hardware company have to love their products enough to believe that people will want to pay for them from the get go. Nobody builds a hardware company by giving all the products away and figuring out a business model later. Also, hardware company founders know they are going to have to manufacture their products at some point—a scary, and expensive, proposition.

So I always look forward to Haxlr8r’s launches. And this, the fifth class of startups launched last week by the Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco-based incubator did not disappoint.

Short background on Haxlr8r (skip this if you’ve read it before): The accelerator takes 10 companies for 111 days, many of those spent in Shenzhen. The companies refine their ideas for hardware products and figure out how to manufacture them. Then they try to get the money to do an initial manufacturing run, sometimes from investors, sometimes from Kickstarter or other crowd funding efforts. The goal, says Cyril Ebersweiler, founder of Haxlr8r, is to figure out how to build meaningful products right and ship them fast, because “any hardware company is capital intensive, so getting to revenues is essential.” In return for a piece of equity, Haxlr8r gives the companies seed money, connects them to mentors, and helps the founders learn their way around the Shenzhen manufacturing scene.

Most of the 10 companies launched products that were STEM toys, wearables, a robots, or some combination of the three. But this latest class of startups covered just about every current trend, including health, the Internet of Things, and rapid prototyping—though one gadget was unabashedly retro.

Here they are, loosely grouped by trend.

Linkitz  (wearable, STEM toy):  Linkitz founder Lyssa Neel says she was looking to build a tech toy for the way girls play—social and collaborative—that would familiarize them with engineering and software. She came up with electronic puzzle pieces that link together into wearable gadgets, along with a simple visual language for programming them. The first release will let girls create “electronic friendship bracelets” that communicate with each other. For example, says the company’s website, a bracelet can “sparkle when a friend is near.” Future “links” will include motion sensors and touch sensors to let kids make the wearables do more. Is mashing up three trends (wearables, STEM toys, and friendship bracelets) just too obvious, or a slam dunk? Not sure when we’ll find out; Neel didn’t announce a ship date for the toys.

Clarity (wearable, health): Clarity’s founders think their wearable air pollution sensors will sell big in China, for starters, and then in other regions with pollution problems. Besides giving instant air-quality readings to help users decide, say, whether to put on a protective mask or try to stay indoors, Clarity’s gadget will send readings to an app that will track total exposure to air pollutants over time. The company will collect anonymized data from individuals to eventually create maps of pollution microclimates, allowing people to avoid pollution hotspots and peak pollution times in various areas. Cofounder Hannah Hagen says “People can’t wait to get their hands on it in Beijing.”  It plans to start manufacturing in February and have it in Chinese consumers’ hands in May.

Prynt (unabashedly retro): Prynt’s plan is to bring back the instant camera in the form of a $129 smart phone case (the smart phone acts as the camera, the case is the printer). The company is using print technology and inkless printer paper from Zink which—get this—they discovered when they read an article I wrote about Zink back in 2009, cofounder David Zhang told me.  And here’s a cute twist—Prynt is going digital to paper and back to digital in a way I haven’t heard of before: When you take a picture using their app, the smartphone saves a snippet of video. Later, when you point a smartphone camera at the printed picture, you’re automatically directed to a website with a replay of the video. Prynt’s product isn’t going to save the world, but it’s cute. The company plans to do a bigger product launch at CES in January, and to start shipping next summer.

Robo (robotics, STEM toy): The idea of simple building blocks that link together to create working robots isn’t a new one. Tinkerbots, for example, closed a successful crowd funding campaign in May and will be shipping early next year. But nobody owns the market yet. So you can’t fault a few more companies for jumping in. Robo’s approach involves cube-shaped bricks, with each type of brick containing different components. Among them are motors, sensors, and microcontrollers; the company also has an app that will suggest designs. The first kit will cost $129, and will be available for preorder early next year. And, says Robo’s Anna Iarotska, these robots will connect to non-electronic Lego bricks; not every part of a robot has to be smart.

Keyi (robotics, STEM toy): Keyi’s Cell Robot is another modular robot kit, but in its case, the building blocks are essentially spherical. Keyi will be launching a Kickstarter campaign next month.

Katia (robotics): Katia cofounder Rosanna Myers thinks it’s pathetic that the only truly useful class of home robots to date are the “Roomba” type of cleaning gadgets. The company hopes to give the home robotics industry a kick (Katia stands for Kick-Ass Trainable Intelligent Arm) with its standard robotic arm that can be programmed by pushing it around. With a camera, Myers says, “she’s a camera rig; with an extruder, she’s a 3-D printer” (I did find it a bit jarring that this robot arm is being referred to as a “she,” not an “it.”) Myers says Katia will cost around $2000, or “less than a Makerbot.” A developers’ kit, with a smaller, $500, version of the device will be out in a few months.

Petronics (robotics for cats): Petronics cofounder David Jun says the company’s robot, Mousr, can turn your living room into a Tom & Jerry cartoon, because Mousr is programmed to drive a cat a little bit nuts (excuse me—encourage it to “engage in natural hunting patterns”) by evading the cat without appearing to be impossible to catch. The product will be out in October of next year. This’ll be a stocking stuffer that will generate a host of cat video postings, because we all know that people can’t get enough of cat videos. At this writing, Petronics is roughly halfway to its $100,000 Kickstarter funding goal.

Form (Internet of Things): Form is touting its “Point” home monitoring gadget as more of a house sitter than a security system. Point includes a variety of audio, motion, smoke, and other sensors, and is intelligent enough to make some guesses as to what is going on in a house (sound of glass breaking plus drop in temperature would likely mean a broken window, for example). I wasn’t that impressed until Form CEO Niles Mattisson pointed out that standard security cameras aren’t appropriate for the peer-to-peer rental market—like Airbnb—because homeowners shouldn’t be voyeurs. It’s fair for homeowners to know if something potentially dangerous happens, however, or to be able to enforce a no-smoking rule, so Point could grab this niche. (I would suggest, however, that the company come up with a catchier and more unique name, for both itself and its product.) Form has so far pulled in $108,000 on Kickstarter, more than double its goal, with several weeks to go in its campaign. It expects to ship its first products next July. The Kickstarter price is $59 to $79; retail will likely be a bit more.

Voltera (rapid prototyping): Voltera has designed a circuit board printer that uses conductive silver ink to create multilayer circuits. In an effort to be a sort of all-in-one circuit board creator, Voltera includes a solder paste dispenser and a reflow oven in its system. The company expects to launch a Kickstarter campaign next year, with the system priced at about $1500.

OpenTrons (rapid prototyping, robotics): OpenTrons cofounder Will Canine says “Lab automation equipment today is in the same place computers were in the ‘60s, when researchers handed off punch cards to techs to run on a mainframe.” In an effort to bring lab automation more in line with the personal computing era, OpenTrons has created a $2000 robotic rapid prototyping system for the biotech world. Canine says its mechanized system for moving precise amounts of liquid into vials is vastly easier to program than $200,000 lab automation systems, and will allow researchers to easily share their experimental protocols. The company launched on Kickstarter this month and plans to ship in May.

Correction made 12 November 2014.

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