The new generation of hardware startups needs a different kind of chip company

Making this board was unduly complicated.

We are awash in new hardware products that promise to make us healthier, connect our homes and even change how we play. But amid this bounty of connected devices there is a little discussed opportunity for a chip firm or a startup — making it much, much easier for people to build out small, smart boards for prototyping and finished products.

Inside every one of your connected devices is a small green or red circuit board that the various sensors, radios and processors are soldered onto. In the prototyping stage these boards might be a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino combined with other boards (shields), but when it comes time to build a real product in units of 1,000 or so things become … difficult. Speaking at SXSW interactive event in Austin Daniel Conrad, the founder of Beep, expressed frustration with buying chips for his in-room music streaming product.

The Beep device.

The Beep device.

He explained that unless engineers are looking for 10,000 chips it’s tough to get a foot in the door. His search for a small embeddable computer that ran Linux, but was cheaper than a Pi led him to a variety of chipmakers before finally being pointed to the brains inside a router. Routers require processing power and also run Linux, so Conrad tried it.

However, routers aren’t engineered to connect intermittently to a USB port, so the contact was iffy and the resulting sound quality for his device was awful. He found himself searching Alibaba for chips and found an alternative. It came with its own problems. He has since solved his issue after trying several other vendors but it took time, money and a bit of luck.

He’s not the only one. As far back as a year ago I spoke with David Merrill, the president and co-founder of toy company of Sifteo (see disclosure), who said one of the biggest challenges and reason for his product’s high cost was the lack of modular components and easily integrated boards. Each Sifteo cube has a custom-based board, and getting them designed and built was a source of frustration.

Wireless Sifteo cube game

That same frustration was expressed on Monday in a conversation with Walter De Brouwer, the founder and CEO of Scanadu, whose company has built a palm-sized medical scanner that measures blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and other vital signs. The Scanadu device is shipping at the end of the month to its initial backers and will retail for $199, a price De Brouwer says could be cut significantly when they can get all of the components on the Scanadu circuit board (pictured at top) on a single chip.

The challenges each of these entrepreneurs face in building their hardware could be addressed with time and money, but if the hardware renaissance is to continue perhaps we need a few more players in the ecosystem to help solve this problem. There’s the challenge of finding the right chips for the job, offering the design expertise required to place components ranging from sensors and microcontrollers to FCC-approved radios in the best and most compact position, and then manufacture them at a smaller scale than the large companies in China. Faster integration of multiple components into one system will also be a boon.

I’ve seen such small-scale manufacturing operations in the U.S., such as on the floor of the Modular Robotics manufacturing site, where a pick and place machine that was at one time used to make bombs now manufacturers toys, but I’m not sure how to get the chip firms to rethink how they sell a categorize their wares.

Modular Robotics CEO Eric Schweikardt standing next to the pick and place machine.

Modular Robotics CEO Eric Schweikardt standing next to the pick and place machine.

Large companies from Intel to Texas Instruments have got on board with boards aimed at the maker movement, hoping to get developers designing products with their chips, but many of these devices are not made for building out actual products in units of 500 to 1,000. Maybe there’s a role that a company like CircuitHub or SparkFun could take on. Maybe we need a new startup that can open up the online equivalent of a RadioShack with higher-level processors and components.

There’s a pain point here. Who will solve it?

Disclosure: Sifteo is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.


Comments have been disabled for this post