HAXLR8R's demo day shows off hardware's fascination with connected devices and robotic servants

By James Robinson , written on May 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Two and a half years old now, the Shenzhen and San Francisco-based HAXLR8R hardware accelerator is just hitting its stride. The program accepts companies from around the world, with teams of just a few people, gives them up to $50,000 in seed capital, and sets them up for 111 days at the doorstep of one of the largest global manufacturing centers.

HAXLR8R’s hosted a demo day for its graduating class on Monday afternoon, taking over the Autodesk's San Francisco offices. Co-founder Sean O’Sullivan introduced the group by saying, with only a hint of hyperbole, that the presenting companies all represent seismic shifts at play in the hardware industry.

He points out that ten years ago in Silicon Valley, founders needed $20 million to get started and much more than that again to ship their first 10,000 units. Incoming HAXLR8R companies, on the other hand, are all early stage and have typically raised limited funding. By working with in-house electrical and mechanical engineers, they can develop new products and bring them to market quickly and at costs orders of magnitude lower than a decade ago.

“These are unstoppable forces,” O’Sullivan says.

Throughout a breakneck hour, ten companies took to the stage. The prevailing-Internet of Things mindset was evident as half of the demonstrating companies showing off connected devices. Spain’s Niwa, for example, has built a smart indoor greenhouse the size of a small bookshelf; no soil is needed, users simply put a seed in and connected sensors do the rest of the work. Providence’s Quitbit wants to help smokers cut back with a connected lighter that tracks smoking via an app and helps connect smoking to others also looking to quit. Darma’s smart seat cushion tracks stress levels and posture.

Bringing small scale gardening back into the urban lifestyle; quantifying our worst behaviors; saving office drones from the physical tolls of sitting all day. In each case, the use case was clear, the potential obvious, and the products ones you don't see everyday.

The IoT allure can be a double edged sword, however. Products routinely toy a line between smart and useless. Hoard, for example was a dropbox for keys that would be set up at 24/7 retailers, aimed at the Airbnb “pain point” of handing keys over to tenants. Someone someday soon will get the smart lock right and Hoard’s bet will look immediately old world. Shot Stats faces a similar fate with its connected device that fits onto the strings of a tennis racket to break down and analyze each player's game. I find myself constantly skeptical about connected sports tools, wondering, what’s the fun as an amateur of being told you suck? But then for the professional player, what can it tell you that a coach can’t?

The robotics sector was similarly well represented at HAXLR8R, illustrating an intriguing sub-trend: Robotics as a service. It sounds boring as all hell. (Maybe it is?) But after decades of cultural fascination about creating humanoid machines to react and interact with us, the more mundane reality is that the first commercial robotics explosion will likely be around robots geared to perform menial labor functions. Avidbots and Rational Robotics -- both Canadian -- have built machines that clean floors and scan and paint auto parts. The devices cost in the tens of thousands but are offered out on flexible pricing plans and renting options. The benefit is simple, the machines are precise and they’re much cheaper (over time) than hiring a real flesh and blood person to do these tasks – an economic reality that's hard to deny.

Among the 10 presenting companies there were outliers, naturally. The customizable and hackable ‘OTTO’ camera, for example, is built off the Raspberry Pi system and can turn any photo into a gif. It’s either too smart for its own good, solving a problem that few have ever experienced, or may just turn out to be the next biggest thing. Consider me skeptical. Kast on the other hand, has made a quicker, cheaper 3D printer using new ‘retina casting’ technology. It's an interesting concept, except the examples on display looked, well, quicker and cheaper. Syrmo’s motion tracker attaches to a skateboard to help you rate your tricks or take better video with a companion app. It seems destined to go down in the books as clever technology that no one actually uses.

HAXLR8R founder Cyril Ebersweiler emphasizes to me that amid the countless applications they review for the program, they look for the companies that sit outside of prevailing trends. HAXLR8R received many applications, for example, for companies making connected e-cigarettes, but sees more potential in a company like Quitbit that's taking an entirely unique approach.

It is easier for risky ideas like this to test the waters now and get to market without traditional venture investment, Ebersweiler says. Capitalizing on another big trend, seven out of the 10 companies will be launching crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter in the coming days. Ebersweiler says that HAXLR8R is an accelerator almost built for a crowdfunding world, wherein companies leave with a prototype, the skills, and contacts to put what they’ve made into production quickly.

That notwithstanding, HAXLR8R demo day, like always, is the moment when the genius of developing smart gadgets in the hardware laboratory must awkwardly confront the realities of what people will actually want to buy and use. Market popularity can’t be fostered in a business incubator, meaning not all of these companies will make it.

Indicative of this new hardware reality, the road to market might have opened up with crowdfunding, but the time between getting a prototype and knowing if you have a winning idea has shortened drastically. It will be interesting to follow as an outside observer, but decidedly intimidating I'd imagine for those with their dreams and venture dollars on the line.