At CES, Startups Start to Stand Out
I don’t care about big TVs I’ll never buy. I just don’t. So in nearly a decade as a technology reporter, I’ve managed, through one excuse or another, to finagle my way out of attending CES. But on the tech startup beat, the world of connected hardware has become increasingly interesting in recent years. So I decided this would be the year I’d volunteer to attend what veterans call the “mosh pit of tech.”
What did I find? There is indeed a lot of startup hardware at CES. I received lists of more than 70 Kickstarter- and Indiegogo-backed companies attending the show, and that’s just a slice. Some of the activity was on the show floor sprinkled among the TVs and car chargers. But there was plenty more to be found in the rows upon rows of startups demoing across town in the Venetian hotel basement where CES had relegated them, or up in hotel suites where they were meeting distributors and suppliers.
One of the byproducts of the crowdfunding age is that startup hardware companies are getting better at pitching themselves. The standard Kickstarter infomercial format encourages people to explain who their device is for, why they’re doing it now and why they’re the best people to do it. So with a press badge, you were likely to run into many a founder with a prototype in one hand, a pushy PR person by his or her side, and a “short version” pitch that often actually made some sense.
Crowdfunding also has a way of making startup hardware companies famous. The makers of the record-setting crowdfunded Pebble smartwatch didn’t have a booth, but they were swarmed at every press event and mentioned in hundreds (maybe thousands) of stories. Oculus Rift didn’t have a booth either, but it seems you can’t have a conversation about the future of hardware without the virtual reality headset coming up.
Still, for every novel device being touted this year there are 30 copycats of last year’s novel device. CES only drove home the point that there are far too many fitness tracking bands. Every athletic wear company has one (Adidas’s Smart Run connects with its coaching program), every Bluetooth company has one (the headphone maker Jaybird introduced the Reign, which will tell you your variable heart rate if you press your finger on it for two full minutes), every sensor company has one (Movea says its G-Series is the most accurate yet).
There also seemed to be a zillion smart door locks: Doorbot, Bluekey, August, Goji, the Kevo Unikey among them. And let’s not even start on how many 3-D printing companies were present.
While it’s hard to imagine most people wearing more than one smart band (though I did meet one woman a while back who wears 21 fitness trackers at once) or using more than one smart lock, there does seem to be a trend toward highly specific devices.
The Netatmo June, a $99 rhinestone-and-leather bracelet, will help alert wearers when they’ve been in the sun too long.
The Owlet pulse oximeter, which costs $250 and should ship to early backers next month, tracks a baby’s breathing from a soft sock with an electronic band inside, in order to detect SIDS before it happens. “That’s what parents really care about. Is it breathing?” co-founder Jordan Monroe told me.
Of course, as with much startup hardware, there’s what you see at the show, and what you see when you actually try to incorporate this stuff into your life. For instance, I’ve been using a Whistle tracker on my dog that gives daily activity reports and syncs via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to an iPhone app. At home, it has been a good push to make sure he’s getting enough exercise. I thought it would be even better when I was at CES and he was with a dogsitter, so I could check up on him from afar. Nope. Turns out she’d have to have the app connected to her own device for it to work, and she doesn’t have an iPhone.
A venture capitalist at the show, Jeff Clavier of SoftTechVC, vented to me about his Nest, which had recently gone through a faulty firmware update that left his house freezing cold, with no way to manually change the thermostat.
We were talking at a cocktail event for Internet of Things startups and investors, and the conversation turned to the fact that the segment tends to be lacking good customer service. It’s not the kind of thing you brag about at a CES booth in the land of disposable big-screen TVs, but it’s pretty darn important. When you buy an object, whether it’s in our home or on your (or your baby’s) body, you expect it to keep working — even if it came from a tiny company that didn’t exist last year.
As Maveron venture capitalist David Wu added, “As these services are more and more integrated into your daily life, the cost of failure is much higher. Sure, you might get mad if Angry Birds goes down — but the stakes are much higher now.”