Not nuts: Boston's Bolt believes in hardware
Bolt cofounder and managing director Ben Einstein in his element.
PetNet had a pretty compelling product. The hardware startup had designed and manufactured a prototype for an automatic pet feeder, Pintofeed, that could be controlled remotely by smarpthone. So if you’re away on vacation, you can feed your pooch in increments without having to worry about its waistline.
The thing was, PetNet hadn’t thought through how its product would appear in stores. While the sensor that helped track the pet’s feeding patterns was installed in the bowl, the whole product came with a large feeder box attached. The problem with that? Large boxy items like that are typically consigned to the bottom shelves of supermarkets and pet stores, where they often go unnoticed by shoppers.
So the mentors at Bolt, Boston’s new hardware accelerator, had an idea: PetNet should sell the bowls separate from the feeders. That way, it’d get a better shelf spot. That way, more people see the Pintofeed, more people buy it, and PetNet can get on with turning itself into a world-slaying pet-tech business.
Product shelf placement is hardly an intuitive, or thrilling, problem for a startup to think about early in its life, but it is a potentially significant one. And it’s just the sort of thing that the mentors at Bolt, who have been there and done that, have to offer.
Bolt opened its downtown-Boston doors to the first seven companies in its six-month program six weeks ago. They were, says cofounder and managing director Ben Einstein, selected from more than 850 applicants from all over the world.
At Bolt, the startups get work space, access to $1 million of micomanufacturing equipment (CNC mills, 3D printers, machines that go beep), connections to manufacturing partners in China, and $50,000 in seed money. (Bolt itself is funded by investments from Grishin Robotics, Logitech, Autodesk, and Brad Feld, among others.) Bolt focuses mostly on connected devices and the business-to-business sector, because there’s a more ready market, fewer complications than in consumer hardware, and it usually means companies are thinking in terms of 5,000–10,000 units rather than hundreds of thousands.
However, Einstein, himself a product designer, says what makes the most difference to these companies is the end-to-end advice the startups get from the mentors, who can cover everything from which chips to buy in bulk to the best way to approach a Kickstarter campaign. (Raise money first, build a good product, use the Kickstarter campaign to validate the market.)
Bolt also houses manufacturing consulting firm Dragon Innovation and its founder Scott Miller, formerly of iRobot. Miller has worked on everything from the Roomba to the Pebble smartwatch. The Bolt process is that startups come into program with prototypes they feel are 80 percent ready, then work on the thing with Bolt’s team of 10 until it’s 100 percent ready, at which point they go to Dragon, which helps them decide on the right manufacturing partners, pieces, and processes. Once they’re out the door, they should be almost ready to go to market.
While software has dominated the last decade of the tech venture scene – especially in Silicon Valley, where hardware startups continue to struggle to find funding – Einstein believes now is a good moment for hardware. The barriers to entry and getting a hardware company started a lower than they have ever been, and the market for smart hardware products is not as saturated as the market for software products – so there are a lot of opportunities. US companies, too, are getting better at dealing with manufacturers and suppliers in China, so contract manufacturing is on the rise.
There’s also a local factor for Bolt. Einstein notes that there aren’t as many tech investment options in Boston as there are in the Valley, so investors are apt to be less ideological about sticking to certain verticals in software and more open to taking bets on hardware.
The consumerization of 3D printing has helped fuel a resurgence of the Maker movement, as underlined by the sale of MakerBot to Stratasys for $403 million. But even as 3D printing grabs headlines and people mass-produce shower curtain hooks in their bedrooms, hardware remains a tough sell to investors. Even Pebble, one of the hottest hardware startups, highlighted the challenges inherent in the sector by delivering its product eight months late. Because hardware isn't as easy to iterate or scale as software, some investors view it as too hard to tackle. So delays like Pebble's continue to make investors nervous, especially on Sand Hill Road, where few venture capitalists have hardware experience.
Bolt and Boston might have a shot at helping to reformat investor thinking somewhat, but, like all hardware projects, they’re going to need a lot of lead time. This particular manufacturing process is just getting started.
I'm reporting from Boston all this week. If you have a Boston-related story idea, feel free to pitch me.