Is surfing the source of waves?
Innovating in Waves
At HAX we see about 1,000 startups and invest in 30 a year via our accelerator program. What kept surprising me since I joined is that we are facing waves.
1. A wave of robots
Two years ago, there were very few robotics projects. Today it’s over a third of the startups we pick. The last batch of 15 startups alone had: a cocktail robot, a nail art robot, a fabric printer, a bio printer, a supplement-mixing robot (as a service) and a robot for aquariums.
The reason? Robotics has gone from mainframe to desktop. Components like sensors, cameras and servos and cheap. Processing can be done on smartphones or in the cloud. Computer vision has impoved. Making a “basic” 3d printer today is a student project. You can build one with robotics kits for kids like Makeblock.
Low-cost robots will impact many industries. The fabric printer above could very well change how fashion and garments are made. What if I told you that if you damage your t-shirt you could dissolve it and re-print it with the same material? Or add some material and print a larger one when your kid grows up? This is mind-boggling.
2. A wave of sensors
A year ago, medical device companies were a rarity. We had 3 in our last program. Two were creating new sensors, the third was combining existing ones in a new low-cost device backed by strong software and databases.
Overall, new sensor technologies are on the rise. We often consider humans have 5 senses. This is an antiquated definition. We have many, many more than that.
How about the sense of hunger? Or when you need to pee? We just invested in a startup helping with the latter, for people with incontinence problems (such as seniors, paraplegics or post-op prostate cancer patients).
And of course there are many non-human senses or augmentations that we could benefit from. Night vision, sonar, seeing behind objects… sensing the outside, others, or inward.
We could even train ourselves to some of those senses thanks to biofeedback and neuroplasticity.
3. Anticipating waves
People ask us: “What categories do you invest in?”. The reality is that we can only talk about the categories we invested in.
We can also talk about the categories that interest us, such as connected cars, haptic technologies, mobility solutions, and more.
We also have a sense of categories that are becoming less interesting. Smart watches, activity trackers, drones and 3d printers come to mind. Unless, of course, you find a way to do something 10 times better in some way.
But we don’t know what we might invest in next. We keep getting surprised by the startups we meet.
Yet, I believe there are ways to anticipate some waves. And for entrepreneurs to try and catch them.
For instance, the consumer 3d printing company Makerbot was born from the expiration in 2009 of the core patent on FDM-based 3d printing that was filed 20 years prior (by the inventor and founder of the 3d printing company Stratasys).
The price of printers went from over $10,000 to a few $k. Today we can find low-end versions at $300. Such 3d printers are today a commodity, but allowed Makerbot an exit of $400m.
Here are some ideas on potential origin of new waves:
- Expiring patents
- Scientific discoveries, in particular of new low-cost technologies
- Important price drops for key components
- Adaptation of technologies from other industries
For instance, I heard that the IoT network company SigFox was based on communication technology found in submarines. Another one is based on technology found in Russian rockets. What used to be reserved to extremely expensive projects can now enter the industrial or consumer realm.
Often times, real impact happens when costs drop massively. A safe ratio is 1/10th. For instance, sensors in smartphones drive adoption of sensors in many other devices.
If cost stays the same then performance makes a difference: when Internet speed went from 100kbps to 1Mbps we went from email and browsing to online video, online games and more.
With mobile, each “generation” brought about a new wave of services and winners:
- 2G had ring tones and SMS
- 3G had small games
- 4G has online / multiplayer games
- What will 5G bring?
It is tempting to say 360 videos or VR but in fact, services that did well in previous waves were rather relying on always-on or multiple small daily connections rather than sending massive amounts of data in one go.
What could be next?