Hardware is hard — but accelerators can make it easier

arduino, DIY, maker

We all know that the costs of starting a web service are dramatically lower than ever before: it’s simpler and easier and faster to deploy. At the same time, services can be distributed through readily available channels such as social networks, search and app stores – all of which can be measured.

The rise of open source, cloud computing and the newly created distribution channels has also dramatically changed how solutions and businesses are created – known as “lean methodology” – and has been embodied by The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

In a similar manner, the costs associated with startups that include a hardware component are also going through a rapid decline.

And at the same time as these cost reductions, Kickstarter has created a marketplace for the crowd funding of hardware projects. More importantly, it has created a framework for startups to essentially run “smoke tests” — as advocated by Ries — to ascertain whether there is demand for a product or service, as well as the price points that the market might accept.

So why does hardware or Internet of Things need an accelerator?

While many of the conditions are highly conducive to support the rise of Maker communities, it’s still a relatively immature ecosystem. Much of the activity and noise is focused on just hacking around rather than having a commercial focus. It’s a good thing and encourages innovation, but tapping into this high energy Maker culture with a guiding hand from experienced mentors has the potential of spawning new ideas – the black swans for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

More interestingly, this emerging market is also attracting some extremely smart entrepreneurs who avoid the trends and fashions of others and like to play on the edges. The technical complexities associated with hardware – the things that make it hard – immediately limits participation to only the brightest engineers.

But it’s not all a bed of roses. It has been previously highlighted that technology projects have one of the lowest success rates among all Kickstarter categories, with only 29% percent being successful. Only fashion projects do worse. In addition, not every project goes well. Delays occur, especially with more complex projects. Some teams over stretch themselves and fail to deal with many aspects of the delivery that are new to them. Even Kickstarter has been forced to admit that “it’s not uncommon for things to take longer than expected.”

And this is where accelerators can help to nurture and support the best and the brightest in this emerging Maker community. As entrepreneurs with domain experience and expertise, mentors can provide first hand knowledge in managing the complexities associated with designing, prototyping, building and the manufacturing of physical devices — which reduces the operational and investment risks of projects.

There are other ways that an accelerator can help, too.

Raspberry PiBeing a hardware entrepreneur is also a very lonely existence, unlike our more popular and mainstream web service cousins. The peer to peer learning and cohort effect of getting the best and brightest entrepreneurs in the same sector working alongside each other cannot be underestimated, both during the program and in the future.

Finally, there are real practical differences between hardware and software which make being part of a dedicated accelerator even more valuable.

Hardware development has specific resource requirements that include access to a workshop space that with, say, 2D laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers and so on as well as support from industrial designers and engineers. Any of these individual resources might be prohibitively expensive or difficult to source, but within the framework of an accelerator their shared cost and accessibility can be invaluable.

Hardware is hard. But that’s what makes it fun and highly investable – given the right resources, environment and support structures. Why shouldn’t the Internet of Things have a dedicated acceleration program?

Jon Bradford is the CEO and co-founder of Springboard, which launched its SpringboardIoT accelerator this week. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is the founder of Good Night Lamp, a new Internet of Things startup.

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