A hardware accelerator is an institution that, in some form or another, works to push forward the progress of hardware startup companies. Hardware accelerators provide help in the form of investment, networking, or expert consultation on any aspect of technical, business, and market development.
In recent years the availability and access to hardware development tools have made the hardware innovation space more competitive than ever. This means as an innovator or startup, if you don't have a way to develop your technology and grow fast, you will fall behind. The proliferation of successful software startup “unicorns” underscores the difficulties hardware startups face. Significant barriers that hardware startups must overcome include the up-front costs of developing a product and the need to often rely on new and "risky" technology.
There’s a classic adage that "hardware is hard." That is still true, and innovators need help if they are going to be successful running a hardware startup. The fundamental issue that hardware startups face is being "de-risked." Investors that are accustomed to more classical investments and software startups often don't see the value in a hardware startup until it has gotten past its early stages of proving the viability of the technology and establishing a business process that generates cash flow for manufacturing. It is incredibly difficult for startups to reach this stage if they have no capital or access to expertise. Hardware accelerators typically understand these risks better than other investment entities. They can gauge what it will take to get a hardware company to a self-staining point, and then boost them there as fast as possible.
There are different types of hardware accelerators that offer different kinds of services. I cannot speak to them all, but in my experience, it is amazing to see the transformation that happens to a startup that goes through an accelerator program. There is no real standard engagement model for accelerators. Some institutions just provide investment and a specific amount of time each week with mentors. Others offer exclusive access to their partnered manufacturing facilities. I’ve worked with accelerator programs that operate in this way:
Innovators often wonder when is the best time to consider working with a hardware accelerator. In my view, this would be after you have a proof of concept that can validate the value of your team, your idea, and your business plan. The hardware accelerator can help startups with the difficult phases of hardware development, but if you have no defensible technology to start with, there will not be much an accelerator can do to help. A classic example in my experience involved a company that developed professional-grade headphones that modulate sound according to the frequency sensitivity of the user’s inner ear. When the company first approached us, they did not have a working prototype. Instead, they came to us with a medical doctor audiologist, a firmware engineer experienced in audio digital signal processing, and some test results that showed that they had the ability to develop the technology that made them really unique. We were able to help with the rest.
Some traditional hardware companies are beginning to offer hardware accelerator services. Part of the motivation for this is the rapid innovations they see happening around them while their own innovation lags. Some companies have internal accelerators for their own engineering teams. Other companies build an accelerator model that helps external teams build things that may eventually complement their own product strategy. Some companies form hardware accelerator partnerships when hardware is not their area of expertise. For example, we work with a medical products provider that has experience developing health and beauty products. They have an accelerator program for those kinds of products, but they have no experience in developing hardware. They partnered with us to provide support for medical equipment startups that come through their program. That is successful because they understand how the highly regulated medical equipment market works, and we know hardware.
Another great partnership example involved a team of engineers that came to us with an idea for a robot that would help people in their homes. We quickly recognized that they were an exceptional team, but we wanted to explore other ways to apply their skills and bring on another partner as a business specialist. Fortunately, we had a corporate partner, a tire company that was searching for ways to incorporate automation into their service chain. All of us working together identified a perfect use case for the engineering team’s skills, which was to build a robot that would automatically conduct bus tire inspections. This would reduce waste on replacements and increase safety by reducing blowouts. During the six months the team spent alongside the HAX development team, they designed, built, and deployed a robot that roved around a bus yard collecting data on the condition of bus tires using a suite of sensors mounted on the end of a robotic arm. The team is now developing and deploying different systems for the original partner and several other clients.
Hardware accelerators can help hardware startups in ways that traditional investors cannot, but it’s important to come with a solid proof of concept, a business idea, and a vision that demonstrates technical competency.
Mike is an Australian Mechatronics engineer based in Shenzhen, China. As program director with HAX Accelerator he helps hardware startups design, manage and manufacture products ranging from the fields of Medtech, to infrastructural IoT and industrial robotics. His major focus for the last 5 years living and working in Shenzhen has been optimizing the development and prototyping process for local and international startup companies. Having multidisciplinary engineering and business planning experience with ~100 hardware startups paired with proficiency in spoken Mandarin allows for him to jump in and add value at any stage of the development of a hardware based business.
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