Makers go to market with hardware startups for learning, play, and IoT

Hardware accelerator HAXLR8R unveiled its newest class of startups at a demo day in San Francisco on Monday. This year’s crop of startups skewed heavily towards gadgets for learning, play, and the internet of things, with devices like a connected vibrator, bike handlebars with technicolor lights and GPS tracking, and the hardware hacker’s favorite product — a drone. The entrepreneurial teams hailed not only from the U.S. and China but also Singapore, Canada, and the U.K. After 111 days of perfecting their prototypes in Shenzhen, China, the ten teams returned to the Bay Area to pitch investors and enter the vanguard of the “hardware renaissance,” as HAXLR8R co-founders Cyril Ebersweiler and Sean O’Sullivan put it.

In addition to seeking seed funding, many of the startups are commencing or have already launched Kickstarter campaigns. Engaging in crowdfunding may reflect the unwillingness of the VC ecosystem to fully back hardware-based efforts, but it may also speak to the lack of staying power for quirky, fun gadgets, which are a dime a dozen on Kickstarter and other similar sites. While many of the products presented at the demo day were indeed colorful, fun, and eye-catching, I wondered whether their creators had harnessed the full potential of the fast product iteration and vast component availability of Shenzhen touted by the HAXLR8R team. Many of the ideas seemed to address decidedly first-world desires or needs, rather than the stated goal of “solving real problems or creating a meaningful change to our current technological state.”

Ironically, one way some of the startups are innovating is not so much with their product or design, but in their business model. Some of the companies are using their apps or software as a Trojan horse for the actual hardware product, while others are using platform-as-a-component plans. One company is just going for the “sex sells” strategy (literally). Here’s a recap of HAXLR8R’s inaugural class last year, and below are this year’s top six startups to watch.


lightupThe brainchild of two Stanford students, LightUp is like a digital erector set. Magnetic snap blocks let kids build working circuits and learn about electronics through trial and error. Besides the physical play kits, which will be available via Kickstarter for $30-200, LightUp also has an augmented reality app that acts like a tutor and lets you visualize current flow in a circuit. The Arduino-compatible system is powered by a button battery, can be used for building all kinds of electronics projects, and will be launched at select partner schools in August.

HEX Air Robot

hex-air-robotChinese company HEX is betting that the FAA will follow through with opening up the skies to commercial drones in 2015. They’ve developed a modular auto-pilot system that they will sell to the DIY drone community, as well as two drone bodies, the smaller of which will debut on Kickstarter next month. Hex’s system also includes an app to launch, land, and have the drone follow the user like an airborne puppy. For photo enthusiasts, the mini HEX includes a camera, and the full-sized drone has a detachable auto-balancing arm for GoPro camera integration.

Molecule Synth

Honeycombs meet Legos in the build-your-own musical instrument from Molecule Synth. It has color-coded parts for pitch control, sound generation, and sensors, and can hook up to an iOS device or a keyboard. A mobile app lets users share compositions, and an upcoming Bluetooth module will give the synth drum machine capabilities. This is definitely the kit for music geeks who want a hyper-customized system, or DJs who want to out-Skrillex Skrillex.


Helios’ mission is to solve the dual dilemmas of safety and security for the hipster biker. Not only does the high-tech handlebar have blinker indicators for turning, it has a built-in super bright leadlight and a GPS tracker. An iOS app lets you change the blinker colors at will, and can even coordinate the indicators with turn-by-turn directions. The $199 bullhorn or drop bars also have two built-in rechargeable batteries and a dedicated battery for the GPS, giving you a 15-day window to find your bike (or probably just the removed handlebars) should it get stolen.

Spark Devices

Spark makes hardware connected with its Arduino-compatible Wi-Fi chip that can be embedded into existing electronics. This “core” tech is gaining traction with early adopter hobbyists on Kickstarter. For enterprise, Spark provides a cloud service that lets Spark-connected devices connect to each other or online services via a REST API. For more on Spark, check out Stacey Higginbotham’s recent post.


Most other devices are smart now, so why not vibrators? Vibease has over 1,000 pre-orders for its $99 rechargeable Bluetooth vibrator. Their companion “fantasy marketplace” app aims to be the iTunes for erotica, with crowdsourced audio fantasies that synchronize with the vibrator’s intensity. The app plus licensing of the Vibease chip to other sex toy manufacturers will form the core of Vibease’s business model.