The Dot represents a new kind of cheap, modular hardware, which relies on a smartphone but adds significant value, a hybrid product some think may represent the next phase of New York’s tech renaissance. “I’ll use Apple because it’s the most famous” Peter Semmelhack, founder of the Chelsea based hardware firm, Bug Labs, told Betabeat. “Today you can avail yourself of over 250,000 applications in the App Store, but do a quick inventory of the interesting hardware you can buy for your iPhone, it’s maybe a couple dozen attachments at best.”
Mr. Semmelhack said that New York has hardware in its DNA. “Look at the history of New York, with AT&T’s Bell Labs and IBM’s research park. We invented things like the transistor, the laser, the radio. We were once a center for innovation in hardware, and the explosion of mobile devices is an opportunity for us to rekindle that industry.”
For Kogeto, the biggest discovery has been the collection of raw, under-valued talent in Rochester, NY, a five hour drive north-west of the city along the border of Lake Ontario. As the headquarters of Kodak and the Rochester Institute of Technology, the city was long a mecca for hardware engineers, optical experts and manufacturing plants. But over the last decade, Kodak cut its work force in the city from roughly 60,000 to 6,000. What little is left may soon be chopped up, as the once-mighty camera maker is sold off in pieces for its valuable patent portfolio.
“There is this incredible community up there, and a lot of start-ups are popping up,” said Mr. Glasse, who cracked no jokes during two long phone conversations with Betabeat. He travels frequently to Rochester to work on everything from the custom tools that will make the Dot to the plastic that goes into the attachment to the packaging in which the product ships. “We’re big fans of Apple, the simplicity and elegance they bring to their products. But we didn’t want to imitate their secrecy or their reliance on questionable overseas labor.”
He added, “Maybe the profit margins will take a hit, but we don’t to make money on the back of some kid getting $2 a day.”
Mr. Glasse is similarly relying on a homegrown marketing plan. “With Kickstarter we were able to essentially find our 1,000 true fans,” he pointed out, “and they are going to help us find the next 10,000.”
“I hate the fucking newspaper. Who told them to make it three feet tall with no staples? You get on the subway and it’s like you’re trying to do this crazy oragami. You end up punching the homeless guy next to you in the face. Who you didn’t even see there. Because he’s wearing camouflage.”
In Rochester, there is little word of the boom going on in the New York tech scene, where 19-year-old CEOs are a normal occurrence. “The real danger is that our young people are leaving because they don’t see opportunity,” noted Jim Murphy, Vice-President of Advent Tool, a custom molder that is making the plastic attachment and packaging for Dot. “It’s more than just Kodak up here. We have a history with Xerox, with the optical engineers at Bausch and Lomb, just an immense amount of talent here that spans back for generations. But as more and more of that work has dried up and gone overseas, our new generation are moving elsewhere, not staying Rochester and learning these crafts.”
If start-ups like Kogeto can tap the exploding smartphone market, marrying New York’s venture capital, software savvy and marketing muscle with Rochester’s labor force and hardware expertise, a corridor of innovation could open up similar to the one that gave Silicon Valley its name during the boom of computer chip makers like Fairchild and Intel. Gotham-based funding platforms like Kickstarter and Quirky are allowing start-ups and solo entrepreneurs to find the seed capital and target market for their products at little to no cost.
The future already looks bright for Bre Pettis, a pioneering member of the hacker collective, NYC Resistor. His company Makerbot just raised $10 million to make 3-D printers available in every home. From his office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Mr. Pettis declared we are on the verge of something big. “It is a great time to have a hardware startup. The infrastructure for raising capital toward early stage hardware start-ups is there with Kickstarter and angel investors. The software and hardware is also at a point where it is modular and quick to prototype and get into production. Build it and they will come.”
“I don’t think we really know where this will all go,” Mr. Glasse said, when reached late on a Sunday night, having spent the better part of his day at the office. “I’m making exquisitely detailed decisions about plastics and supply chains and packaging that I’ve never thought about before, and I’ll probably have to live with those choices for the next year. What I do know is that me and the team I have put together are crazy about panoramic video. We’re passionate about the product and we believe once people get it in their hands, it will change the way they see the world.”
Follow Ben Popper via RSS.