Women founders of hardware/software startups.

August 28, 2013

A few days ago I caught up with my friend Helen Greiner who is a world-class engineer and a successful entrepreneur. Helen is an amazing person, a fellow MIT engineer, co-founder of iRobot, and now founder/CEO of CyPhy Works. I was proud to have been an investor and a member of her Board until earlier this year. My conversation with her motivated me to think of other women founders of hardware/software startups. I was embarrassed that only a few names immediately popped into my mind. But I knew there were many more. So I asked the twitterverse if they could think of some other awesome women hardware entrepreneurs and several names were added to my list.

Here are some such entrepreneurs I know, and some others that I would love to know better:

  • Limor Fried – Limor is an MIT alum and founder of Adafruit Industries, a pioneer in bringing electronics and maker philosophy to people of all ages. Limor founded Adafruit in 2005 and was the first woman engineer on the cover of Wired magazine.
  • Ayah Bdeir – Ayah is also an MIT alum and I was introduced to her by the current MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. She is the founder and CEO of Little Bits – an open-source kit of pre-assembled electronics parts that are plug and play into gadgets, devices, toys, etc. Think of it as the legos for the 21st century. Parents and kids love her gadgetry equally.
  • Kegan Fisher Schouwenburg – Kegan is the founder and CEO of Sols, an awesome new solution bringing 3D scanning and 3D printing together. Everyone I know who has met Kegan describes her as a force of nature. She was an early member of the Shapeways team (disclosure: Shapeways is my firm, Lux Capital’s, 3D printing portfolio company), and helped them build The Factory of the Future.
  • Lenore Edman – Lenore is a co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, designing and producing “DIY and open source hardware for art, education, and world domination.
  • Meredith Perry – Meredith is the founder and CEO of uBeam – a wireless electricity company. I really find what she is working on fascinating as (a) I hate carrying all kinds of wires and charging devices with me, and (b) wireless charging might be critical for an internet of things that some of us imagine in the not so distant future.
  • Jeri Ellsworth – Jeri is famous for building Commodore 64 emulator within a joystick. I would love to own one! She is a hacker/builder extraordinaire and seems to be developing a new company called Technical Illusions to commercialize a projected augmented reality game system.
  • Amanda Bynes – Amanda and her co-founder met at UC Irvine and created Fabule to build smart domestic devices, i.e. internet of things for the home, with personality. At Haxlr8r, she developed the first product, Clyde, which is a smart lamp.
  • Alice Brooks – Alice is an MIT/Stanford alum and founder of Roominate. She is determined to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education fun, esp for girls aged 6-10, via a series of building toys.
  • Erin, aka RobotGrrl – Erin loves robots with a personality. She is a great role model for young women in robotics. She is also the designer behind Robobrrd which checked in at 151% of its funding target on IndieGogo.
  • Vanessa Green – Vanessa is an MIT alum and co-founder/CEO of Finsix which is developing a very high frequency power converter (transformer). Vanessa is also a board member of Community Water Solutions, a non-profit she co-founded in 2008.
  • Heidi Lubin – Heidi is the founder and CEO of Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies (HEVT). She is building high efficiency motors that are free of rare earth materials by utilizing innovations in hardware and software.
  • Mary Huang – Mary seems to be doing some very interesting work at the cross-section of hardware/software/design and fashion. Check out her 3D printed products at Continuumfashion.com.
  • Nancy Liang – Nancy is the force behind Mixeelabs, a platform for designers to create customizable products and sell them online. She is a Shapeways alum, now utilizing the 3D printing manufacturing capabilities of Shapeways to enable distributed product development and e-commerce.
  • Star Simpson – Star was the genius behind the TacoCopter. She is a maker and equally comfortable with electronics and robots as she is with code. Check her out at starsimpson.com.
  • Samantha Snabes – Samantha is a co-founder of re:3d, a 3D printing company based in Austin utilizing large format 3D printers to maximize production.
  • Dorian Ferlauto – Dorian is founder and CEO of Elihuu, a company that connects designers with the appropriate manufacturers so the product ideas can be turned into delivered goods in customers’ hands. I find the community they are building, of designers and manufacturers to be quite interesting.

This page of Lady Ada Lovelace Day also includes names of several other women entrepreneurs who are building awesome hardware/software products and solutions. There are obviously many many others who are doing amazing work. Please feel free to add other names in your comments. I am excited my daughter will have great role-models to look up to in STEM, hacker/maker culture, and engineering entrepreneurship.


Accelerating university spinouts and science-based startups

September 28, 2010

Technology entrepreneurs and investors are naturally drawn to the impressive research and innovation coming out of our universities and research laboratories to look for the next ‘gems’. I am as well. But the reality is that good university spinouts are really hard to come by.

Desh Deshpande, a well known entrepreneur, investor, mentor and the co-chairman of US President Barack Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship recently stated that US gov’t spends more than $150 billion per annum on federal R&D. There is an expectation, not just by the government and the society, but research institutions themselves that significant technologies developed with those dollars would translate to commercial opportunities, especially in the form of new startups that would create additional jobs and drive economic growth.

So why is it that despite a strong focus from investors to back disruptive technology start-ups straight out of universities we don’t see as many as we would expect? Is there something missing in the science that our institutions are producing? or maybe investors don’t know how to find and polish a rough diamond straight out of the mine?

There could be multiple reasons but some that I have observed frequently include:

  1. University professors often stop short of taking their research output to a point where commercial potential can be more clearly visible to a non-expert in the field. Except for 1-2 short sentences used in a publication to justify the money spent, the system of peer-reviewed publications and departmental promotions etc is unfortunately not set up to motivate and encourage commercialization activities. In such a scenario, since professors themselves are lacking the entrepreneurial zeal to ‘change the world’ (entrepreneurial brilliance that is found in outliers like Bob Langer and Yet-Ming Chiang is not that common), we are often left with stranded science that doesn’t get translated into useful commercial activity.
  2. I have often heard post-docs mention that there is gap in funding research that would take early scientific breakthrough publications into engineering/product domains. Translational science is not supported to the degree it should be, and entrepreneurial grad students/post-docs are left with few options: (a) continue down the academic path and forget commercialization, (b) leave academia and join a  large company, and (c) walk the tough road of finding SBIR type funding outside of a university. It is a pity we don’t have adequate support for translational science because researchers often need to do additional technical work to prove hypotheses, demonstrate technology’s benefits in commercially tenable ways and assess risks, or develop economic projections that at least show a trajectory in the right direction. Government can likely be a strong supporter here, and organizations like DARPA and ARPA-E can play a crucial role here.
  3. Even in circumstances when the faculty might be inclined to commercialize their inventions, the single biggest gap in my opinion is not in dollars, but in the entrepreneurs that can truly make sh*t happen. Technical founders need equally strong business founders. I like to use the term Technical Business Development to describe these “sausage-makers” than CEOs. Ideally these people have some of the following characteristics, and hopefully more: (a) technically competent to understand the technology space well, (b) work experience in the space so they can quickly identify commercial opportunities to dig into, (c) have a strong network, esp with customers and commercial partners, so they can pick up the phone and get customer feedback instead of wasting hours decorating a ppt presentation, (d) know what investors look for at such an early stage and guide the discussion to focus on how initial dollars can create value, (e) have been a part of an entity where they observed success and great management closely, and internalized some of the learnings, and (e) be resourceful in difficult circumstances – so they provide comfort to the early stage investors that the entrepreneur they are backing will be able to make lemonade out of lemons if circumstances so require. Or as Mike Moritz said today at TechCrunch Disrupt: ‘able to reinvent themselves’.

So what do we do to improve the situation? I am looking for ideas myself, so please do share…Some thoughts include:

  1. We need to find more such Technical Business Development leaders and plug them into our research institutions as EIRs etc. We need less people with hefty titles but no ‘creativity’, less fresh MBA grads who want to do a startup but can’t commit time/effort to deeply understand a space, and CEOs who are really only looking for a job but dabbling to see if a CEO stint might come by out of a university interaction. We need people who are passionate about technology, about entrepreneurship, and the process of early stage commercialization. If they have prior experience in the above, they might even a higher likelihood of success. We need people who have horizontal breadth but ability to dive deep vertically on opportunities, can analytically think through market opportunities, have the resourcefulness/hustle to create customer/partner relationships even pre-funding, and are generally more creative about problem solving.
  2. We need more opportunities for faculty (and grad students, post-docs) that are doing research to be plugged into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They should meet investors, CEOs, CTOs, company founders, potential Board members before they actually spin out the company – because with that knowledge and ecosystem around them they will do a better job crafting the spinout. Three years ago, General Catalyst Partners, and two other venture firms (Flybridge & Atlas) started an annual program called University Research and Entrepreneurship Symposium in Cambridge, MA. This is not a plug for our program, but for the idea to provide a platform for university researchers/PIs to showcase their exciting research in its relatively raw but digestable form to an audience that is comprised of investors and successful entrepreneurs.
  3. I have also griped before that at least in the cleantech/science community, we don’t see as much adoption of the new online social networking tools as we should have. While those working in IT/consumer/web are glued to their screens reading/wrting blogs & tweets etc, my twitter stream and RSS feeds are thirsty for more direct/raw conversations with scientists, innovators, creative entrepreneurs, even investors in physical sciences.
  4. Market research type organizations (eg Lux Research, GreenTechMedia etc), and possibly funding agencies like ARPA-E, can help even more by accelerating the entrepreneurship-related education of next generation entrepreneurs and investors by providing suitable workshops and forums. Topics could include state of the art technology, metrics used to evaluate new technologies’ potential and trajectory, costing exercises that can be shared across the industry, and case studies of what has and has not worked in different industries. From my own limited experience, I have seen many entrepreneurs come to me with similar business plans with several making the same wrong assumptions about the state of the art in their field of interest, capital needs, market channels, time-to-market, competitive pricing pressures etc. I just wish there was an efficient way to share learnings with them so they could develop better business plans.
  5. Last but not the least, the investor community will also need to step up to the plate and become more aggressive towards taking risks. Entrepreneurs can only move the needle so far without any support available to pay for basic expenses.

Anyways…these are just some thoughts, and I am open to learning from others. Don’t get me wrong, there are great university-based spin-outs being done regularly, and that is really the innovation/commercialization engine that I believe will be critical to our continued economic growth and success…kudos to those who have figured out better models than I have in finding, developing, funding, and supporting such enterprises. Lets share some of those learnings and promote the elements that have maximum positive impact.


MIT’s burgeoning role in the green movement

April 7, 2008

Under its new President, Susan Hockfield, MIT has taken a leadership role in the discussions regarding science, technology, business, entrepreneurship and policy in energy and the environment. Here is an op-ed from her in today’s Boston Globe. I look forward to attending the MIT Energy Conference this coming weekend. I invite you to visit GEO2’s booth on the friday night’s Energy Showcase.

MIT’s burgeoning role in the green movement

by Susan Hockfield

April 7, 2008

BOSTON MAGAZINE has ranked MIT’s work on energy and the environment as No. 2 on its list of “61 Best New Things About Boston.” It’s unusual praise for MIT; our research is more often noticed in academic journals. But the magazine’s listing says something important: people beyond the university research community and the green movement are eager for answers to our energy and environmental challenges.

The challenges are many. How do we meet the aspirations of people around the world for a healthy, comfortable, productive life, without irreparably damaging the planet? How will we in the developed world preserve our quality of life, while shifting to renewable technologies? At the same time, how do we enable the developing world to reach a standard of living that grants access to modern comforts? How, for example, will we get electricity to the 1 billion people who don’t yet have it?

At MIT we are inventing real energy and climate solutions – from large-scale technologies that capture carbon emissions and dramatic new ways to tap deep geothermal energy, to smaller-scale ideas such as lithium-ion batteries to revolutionize the electric car and new materials that could make solar energy as cheap and dependable as coal.

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