As winners of the 2014 Intel Make it Wearable Challenge bring their wearables to market, they offer tips for next year’s contestants.
How’s this for entrepreneurial speed? In less than seven months, Christoph Kohstall and two partners hatched a plan for Nixie — a wearable camera that flies off your wrist, takes your photo and flies back — won more than $500,000 for their startup, and built a working prototype.
Nixie was the first-place winner of Intel’s 2014 Make it Wearable challenge, a worldwide competition to encourage inventors to create innovative wearables using Intel’s Edison technology, a tiny computer chip and hardware platform Intel designed specifically for wearables and Internet-of-Things devices.
The competition happened fast. Make it Wearable competitors submitted their ideas in June and developed products in preparation for the November finals with coaching from some of Silicon Valley’s top tech and business leaders.
The $500,000 top prize has played a huge role in getting Nixie off the ground, so to speak. In the six weeks since Nixie won, Kohstall — still working from his Los Altos, California, home — and his partners launched the first working prototype of Nixie, able to fly off a person’s wrist and take photographs.
“We had no funding — everything was self-funded until the competition,” Kohstall says.
Now, Nixie is hiring. Kohstall is looking for talented engineers, and the company can now afford them.
“Having won this competition, now we can focus on really building the product, and that’s a wonderful luxury,” Kohstall says.
This is something Nixie has in common with the other winners. The founders of OpenBionics (which won second place and $200,000), and ProGlove (third place and $100,000) all say hiring is a priority. And they have some lessons and observations to pass along to the next round of innovators who’d love to follow in their footsteps.
Since the Finals
Just like Kohstall, in about seven months, Alexander Grotz and his four-person team in Munich launched ProGlove, going from idea to the Make it Wearable competition and building several working prototypes of their product.
ProGlove is a glove/wristband combo for factory workers that electronically captures their movements and alerts them to mistakes, locates missing parts and automates inventory by scanning the barcodes of the parts they use.
The ProGlove team took the Make it Wearable coaches’ advice to spend more time observing factory floors. They learned that workers want their easily soiled gloves to remain disposable, says Grotz.
ProGlove’s designers decided to remove most of the sensors from the glove itself and incorporate them into the new wristband.
OpenBionics’ product is a low-cost bionic hand with replaceable, 3D-printed parts. Founder Joel Gibbard says his Bristol, United Kingdom, company also gathered more feedback during the competition, reinforcing some important design changes.
Based on input from amputees, OpenBionics has incorporated flexible tendons into the hand and significantly reduced the product’s weight.
Before, “We were looking at something that was more (functionally) complex” than lightweight, Gibbard says.
“We had made what we wanted to make, rather than what they wanted.”
2015 Will Be Even Harder
Subtlety and utility will be key for the 2015 Make it Wearable competitors, if this year’s winners have anything to say about it. Over the next year, wearable devices will likely become less conspicuous and more user-centric, they say.
“Right now wearable technology is also about attraction. People look for it, and they say, ‘Oh, how cool is that?’” Grotz says.
But Grotz believes that once the novelty of wearables begins to fade, unobtrusiveness will become key.
“The teams next year I think will have a much higher bar in terms of making products that really disappear into the body, so not just watches and things you can wear on your clothes … but ones that are connected socially, that are connected to our houses, and connected to our work,” says Make It Wearable mentor Andre Marquis, executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“They will disappear into your lifestyle.”
OpenBionics’ Gibbard agrees that next year’s competitors will have to be more unobtrusive, though he adds fashion will still be essential.
“Google Glass right now is too conspicuous,” Gibbard says.
“For most people, their device has to either be invisible, or look like it doesn’t do anything. It has to be an art piece in its own right.”
For Nixie’s Kohstall, utility is essential.
“My advice is really think outside the box, see where there’s a great need for people, and how you can fulfill this need only with a wearable,” he says.
“There’s no simple recipe.”
Marquis says Nixie’s boundary-blurring vision signals the potential of what may come.
“Nobody thinks of a drone as a wearable, and yet they created a wearable flying device, and I think that’s a testament to Intel’s recruiting globally [for the competition] and just the power of innovators around the world coming up with creative ideas.”
It reminds Marquis of the early days of the Internet.
“It’s so early that we don’t know where the big impact is going to happen. And that’s the most exciting thing. We can’t see any limits right now.”