By Stephen Fisher
The 5th annual regional Alphalab Gear Hardware Cup rolled into Pittsburgh pitting the most innovative startups in the Mid-Atlantic area against each other in that most dreaded of competitions: Public speaking.
Only six of 100 applications got in. And the top teams selected gave three minute pitches with another three minutes to answer pointed judge questions. All while more than a hundred people sat silent except for the enthusiastic applause.
In short, a good scene. Especially if you’re interested in people pushing the limits of how commercial technology can help real people.
About Alphalab Gear and the Hardware Cup
Alphalab Gear is a major startup accelerator focusing on hardware projects. They select new companies looking to bring their innovations to market and help them develop resources with a 30-week program. A project of Innovation Works, the largest seed investor in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Alphalab Gear created the Hardware Cup in 2015 to cross pollinate entrepreneurs and innovators in the hardware space from across the country.
All this begs the question: What exactly was at stake last night? Four things: The advertised rewards were a $3,000 prize and the chance to compete in May’s International Hardware Cup. But more important were the intangible benefits: A public deadline on having a work pitch-ready and the chance to network with investors who’ve had a chance to see them present and defend their ideas.
Three minutes isn’t much time but it’s enough to prove how well someone understands their business model, who needs their product, and how they’ll defend the market from other players. They might not be able to dot every “i” and cross every “t,” but the risk of being caught off guard by a tricky unprepared question is too great not to practice.
So who were the competitors?
For Auraspark the hook is a wearable icebreaker to save us all the embarrassment of awkward introductions by automating the process. Their bracelets connect via bluetooth to a smartphone where an installed app will ask an icebreaker question.
People with similar answers will have bracelets lighting up with the same pattern but won’t tell any more about what they have in common. So mixing becomes a friendly game to figure out what the bracelets think they share. A nice mix of introduction and ambiguity pushing attendees towards exploring in a more natural fashion than your average party game. Their focus is on college events and their business model for this phase is a $40 rental fee per bracelet. They hope to branch out from colleges to corporate events.
The next competitor almost couldn’t be more different. Instead of a social tool to get people past clumsy meeting phases, Arieca’s flagship product is a thermally conductive rubber. Of course they call it Thubber. The industrial and semiconductor applications for a material both shock absorbant and able to transfer heat away from the delicate parts of modern devices are varied and important. They’ve already sold some low cost Dev kits for R&D for between $500 and $3000 and are experimenting with more uses.
Another unique company is Atimize who developed an alternative to battery powered wheelchairs for disabled people called the Pneuchair. First made for a water park looking to be completely accessible they’re looking to expand past the 10 units they’ve sold so far into other water parks and into Big Box Stores and Managed Care Facilities. The chairs, which are entirely submersible, are powered by compressed air tanks easily refillable in as little as ten minutes instead of the 8 hours an electric battery might take to recharge. They’re looking to get more of the devices into the hands of people looking for an alternative to electric wheelchairs.
Aspinity has developed a proprietary method of saving battery life in voice activated phones by cutting out a step most such devices use to recognize activation words. By using a trained neural network to analyze analog signal instead of converting all noise to digital, they’re able to save on a great deal of power consumption. Already in talks with Amazon over possibly incorporating their technology into the next generation of voice activated products, they’re hoping to partner with existing leaders in voice activation to save consumers on replacement batteries.
Voted the Audience Favorite, Panacea.Ag sells Smart Greenhouse systems to reduce the risks and expenses of growing food in hydroponic greenhouses. Their solution includes a $400 start up fee, a series of temperature sensors strategically located and easily monitored by the client, and plant-checking robots to scan for any discoloration or other issues with the crops. All this allows them to drastically reduce the amount of human effort needed to monitor crops and to speed up response time to potential dangers to production. Their business model starts with a modest upfront cost for set up and the sensors and then a monthly software service fee. They already have a distributor partner who produces the Greenhouses themselves and a number of real clients.
But the winner of the evening wasn’t any of these companies, no it’s the last company on our list, Yodel Labs. Who developed an accurate method
for indoor localization with a solid front end interface. By using an ultrasound beacon their technology can pinpoint a phone within a few centimeters. With that capability, they’re targeting big box stores who already have detailed SKU maps of their own stores and using augmented reality to easily guide shoppers not only to the right section but to the exact shelf where their desired item is laying. But perhaps the biggest selling point is the analytics of shopper movement otherwise difficult to do in such detail. That kind of data will make optimizing store layouts even more efficient.
Well, there you have it. The six regional finalists were all strong candidates and most have actual customers using their products in the real world. It’s a testament to how strong the Pittsburgh startup scene is getting.
What’s next? Well, for everyone but Yodel Labs it’s back to the drawing board. Following up with new contacts made and otherwise returning to the startup grind. With a little luck and some new investors to smooth things along.
Yodel Labs, like Alphalab Gear itself, will be returning to compete for the big $50,000 prize in May. But before that the Hardware Cup has four more American regionals and several International competitions before coming back here to decide who gets the big pot.
And with a regional this competitive the final round will even harder to stand out in. And that’s all good news for Pittsburgh.
Learn more about the Hardware Cup on TechVibe Radio.