Hardware development is now making up lost ground on software as costs fall and state of the art technologies become more accessible. Inter alia this is encouraging progress in the robotics industry.

[Hello TMRC] “Innovation has no nationality, it’s everywhere”

Interview with Benjamin Joffe, mentor at the HAXLR8R accelerator, on the sidelines of the "Tomorrow Do It Yourself" session at the Hello Tomorrow Challenge conference held in Paris on 18-19 April.

L’Atelier: Could you tell us about HAXLR8R?

Benjamin Joffe: HAXLR8R is an accelerator programme for startups which has been running for two years. We specialise in hardware. The startups we select come from everywhere in the world. We’re based in Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. It’s really the nerve centre of world electronics production with access to factories working in different sectors. This was a strategic choice as that’s where the top companies have their production facilities. It’s really a unique location because the whole supply chain is available there. This close-knit industrial fabric cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

The projects we support cover connected objects in general, ‘wearable devices’, robotics, drones, 3D printing and so on, both B2B and B2C. Out of the thirty startups which have already completed the programme, with ten taking part every six months, sixteen met their crowdfunding campaign targets, with an average of $250,000. That proves that there is certainly demand in this field. One startup which is enjoying quite a lot of success at the moment is Spark, a hardware platform and cloud service for connected objects which is becoming very popular. It’s already building tens of thousands of devices. There’s also Nomiku, a compact immersion circulator which can be attached to any saucepan for ‘sous-vide’ (vacuum) cooking. And then there’s Hex, which builds helicopters and drones for monitoring and inspection purposes.

How do you explain this enthusiasm for hardware when just a couple of years ago innovation was more about new uses and software?

Our accelerator is one of the world’s pioneers. Most of the existing accelerators only do software and when they come across hardware firms they don’t really know how to help them. With software, it’s easy to obtain results quite quickly. All you have to do is to post your work on the Internet and people can see the final results. But with hardware you have to know how to make a product and get it into the hands of users and so on, and that takes time. So the results achieved for hardware by standard accelerators are pretty mediocre.

Hardware existed before software and when we talk about hardware startups we’re usually talking about a combination of electronics and software. There are an increasing number of startups overall, so the cost of starting up a business has fallen. And the costs of running a hardware startup have also come down, at least during the prototype stage, which is down to a number of factors – the Arduino (Editor’s note: an open source hardware single-board microcontroller, intended to make the application of interactive objects or environments more accessible); the plummeting price of components; smartphones which these days are everywhere; 3D printing, etc. All this means that functional prototypes can be built fairly quickly at very low cost. On the other hand, there are still some serious difficulties – accurately identifying your market, figuring out how to produce at scale, getting your product to market and finding project financing.

I believe however that there’s a special pleasure in creating a physical object, which you don’t experience with pure software. There’s an aesthetic, tactile aspect. You work on it directly and you don’t need a computer. The product is an object which fulfils its purpose right away.

What will be the next step for the ‘Do it Yourself’ movement and hardware trends?

‘Do it Yourself’ is the cornerstone of hardware development. The new less costly components, 3D printing and so on widen the range of possibilities. We could therefore envisage a lot of companies emerging to create niche products that couldn’t have existed previously for technical or business reasons. Prototyping platforms also help the process as you can do lots of things without needing to know all the secrets of electronics. Almost anyone who is familiar with programming can take an Arduino and make a viable prototype.

Robotics is an area that’s progressing fast at the moment. We have a number of startups at our accelerator working in the field of robotics. There is for example an industrial cleaning robot and a forest ranger robot which can spot the outbreak of fire by using thermic signature analysis and send drones to put the blaze out.

How do you see the innovation scene in France compared with abroad?

Well, innovation has no nationality, it’s everywhere. On the other hand, there is the whole question of opportunities and ecosystems, which we can’t ignore – such factors as being able to hire talented, skilled people on the ground, to obtain capital, having major firms around to buy your product, access to markets, etc. With exactly the same kind of activity, a company based in the US is going to be more successful than one based in France, because the market is ten times bigger. France certainly has ideas but it’s in the US that you find action, high numbers, and a fluid job market. There’s also the issue of regulation – immigration, hiring and firing, etc. I would recommend companies to aim high but to start out in a niche market and deliver their products fast.

By Eliane HONG