Highway1 startups demo an air quality monitor, bike light, connected jewelry and solar power tech

Hardware startup incubator Highway1 revealed part of its first-ever class of startups today, whose work ranged from a connected ring to a circuit board meant to further cut the cost of solar power.

“We took a leap. We’re building wings on the way down, but we’re getting there,” said Liam Casey, CEO of PCH International, which backs Highway1.

Seven out of 11 of Highway1’s startups pitched their hardware to a crowd gathered at the new PCH headquarters in Potrero Hill, a San Francisco neighborhood that CEO Liam Casey dubbed the burgeoning hub of the “hardware renaissance.”

Highway1 was founded in 2013 when PCH became interested in working with startups at an even earlier stage than its existing accelerator targeted. It focuses on helping companies navigate manufacturing in China, plus prototyping and refining their hardware. Highway1 president Brady Forrest opened applications for its second class at the Gigaom Roadmap conference in November. The incubator is now selecting startups for a March 10 start date.

While several of the startups from the original class are still in stealth mode, here’s a look at the four that spoke publicly today.


Birdi co-founders Mark Belinksy and Justin Alvey

Birdi co-founders Mark Belinksy and Justin Alvey

The founders didn’t make the comparison themselves, but Birdi is an alternative to Nest. It’s a smoke alarm that’s also capable of detecting pollution, carbon monoxide and other air quality measures.

My colleague Stacey Higginbotham recently took a look at the interesting approach Birdi is taking to connectivity; it’s built to integrate with devices like Hue lightbulbs or even, in CEO Mark Belinksy’s mind, a teddy bear stuffed with an Arduino board. The lights can change color in the event of an emergency and the bear could play a recorded warning.

During a demo, the Birdi team sprayed smoke on the detector. Belinsky’s phone rang to warn him. He selected “emergency” on his phone, which caused an alarm to sound and a Hue light to turn red. He then turned the alarm off from his phone.

Birdi has two weeks left in its Indiegogo campaign. It passed its funding goal today. It’s still available to backers for $99.


Blaze CEO Emily Brooke

Blaze CEO Emily Brooke

Blaze demoed the Laserlight: a bike light that combines a forward-facing light with a laser that projects a green bike symbol on the pavement in front of the cyclist. It’s meant to increase the likelihood that a motorist notices a bike, such as giving them a warning that a bike is approaching if they are about to turn a corner.

CEO Emily Brooke said that Blaze delivered its very first light to a customer this morning. It will also be distributed by Evans Cycles, which is the largest bike retailer in the U.K. It is currently available for preorder for just more than $200.


PCH International Highway1 Demo Day Dragonfly solar

Solar panel prices have dropped dramatically over the past decade. But the Dragonfly Systems team wanted to push the overall cost of solar power down even further by taking a look at the electronics that connect solar panels.

The Dragonfly is a small circuit board that attaches to the back of solar panels. It’s easier to attach than existing hardware and allows operators to daisy chain more solar panels together before hitting the voltage limit. It can also alert them when a panel goes down. Overall, CEO Andrew Ponec said it can cut hardware costs by 25 percent.


Ringly co-founders Christina Mercando and Logan Munro

Ringly co-founders Christina Mercando and Logan Munro

Ringly‘s team believes that wearable devices can move into the mainstream by blending fashion with technology.

“They need to become more discrete,” CEO Christina Mercando said. “They need to become simplified. And above all else they need to look good.”

Ringly’s solution is a ring that vibrates and lights up when the wearer receives a text, call or other sort of notification. It can be customized to only buzz in very specific circumstances or to flash a different color depending on the type of notification.

Mercando said they chose to target women because, unlike men, women tend to keep their phones in a purse, where it is easier to miss a notification. The company wouldn’t let me take a photo of their ring, but I was able to try it on. The buzz and light were both subtle. The ring features a fairly large gemstone at this point, which covers up the tiny set of electronics, but the startup plans to further shrink the ring before it is released.

“Logan’s texting me, I must have to go,” Mercando said while presenting, apparently responding to her ring vibrating, before leaving the stage. The crowd laughed.