Working on a Startup? New Fund is Building Portfolio from Hard Technology

Root Ventures just announced it has raised a second fund and is in search of startups to invest the $76,726,900 they now have burning a hole on their balance sheet. Their first fund of $31,415,926.53 went to some very cool hardware companies like Shaper, Particle, Plethora, and Prynt. For those keeping score, the first fund is Pi and the second is the speed of sound — it’s a geeky engineer thing.

This is a seed fund, and founding partner Avidan Ross described their role in your company as being the world’s “greatest sherpa to take you on a really tumultuous path”. That path is one of building a product around which a great company can arise. Repeatedly during the conference call with Hackaday, Avidan stressed that what makes Root Ventures stand out is that the partners in the firm are themselves engineers and have hardware backgrounds. For instance, Avidan spoke at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference about his 45-second pizza oven and other food/automation hacks. Partner Chrissy Meyer was an engineering manager at Apple and led hardware programs at Square, before founding a vehicle technology startup. Their point is that if you’re going to entrust part of your company to someone, it’s nice if they have the background to understand it.

Whether or not you have a startup in the works, it’s interesting to know what the keepers of the cash are looking for. Avidan described this as a engineering-heavy seed fund, but stopped short of calling it a hardware seed fund, using the more coy term “hard-tech fund”  although more than half of the portfolio companies already on board are building new, original hardware. It’s impossible to nail down exactly what the fund is seeking — they’ll know it when they see it — but we had a nice conversation of some of the future trends he has in mind.

While economies of scale in the smartphone industry delivered low cost sensors such as accelerometers, GPS, and cameras, along with connectivity, the next wave may be from the self-driving industry. Avidan foresees rising availability of ASICs, specialized GPUs, and the sensing hardware currently under heavy R&D in the automotive industry. His take is that not only will this be a hardware boon for startups, but the machine learning aspects of it will produce both talent and opportunity for new companies.

Pull together those proofs of concept and get your presentation decks ready. That $76 million is just waiting for a great idea to come along. If you make it big, Hackaday still wants an early look at your awesome new hardware!

3D Printing, Cybersecurity, and Audio Fingerprinting

We all understand the risk of someone taking over our computers or phones for nefarious purposes. But remote access to printers and fax machines was something most people took a little less seriously. After all, you might get some obscene printouts or someone wasting some paper, but in general, those are not big deals. Some researchers however have lately been pondering what might happen should someone break into your 3D printer. Of course, you could bring a printer down to deny service, or cause things to malfunction — maybe even in ways that could be dangerous if the printer didn’t have sufficient safety features. But these researchers are more crafty. They are studying how you know what you’ve printed hasn’t been subtly sabotaged. They also think they have an answer.

If you are printing another Benchy at home this probably isn’t a real concern. However, according to the paper, 3D printing now accounts for over $6 billion of revenue with 33.8% of all parts having some function. This includes a recent FAA approval for a 3D-printed fuel nozzle for a jet engine. So indulge us in a little science fiction. You are about to fly your drone to take video of an important social function. You are worried about one of your props, so you 3D print a new one. Too bad your competitor has hacked your computer with a phishing e-mail and modified your STL files so that the new prop will have built-in weak spots internally. The prop will look fine and you’ll be able to install it. But it is going to fail right when you are taking those critical shots.

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The Return of RadioShack?

We’ve been following the ups and downs of Radio Shack for a while now, and it looks like another chapter is about to be penned in the storied retailer’s biography – and not Chapter 11 bankruptcy this time.

According to the ARRL website and major media reports, up to 50 of the 147 US locations of HobbyTown, the brick-and-mortar retailer of RC and other hobby supplies, will soon host a “RadioShack Express” outlet. Each outlet will be up to 500 square feet of retail space devoted to electronic components that would be of use to HobbyTown’s core customer base, as well as other merchandise and services.

HobbyTown locations in Mooresville, North Carolina, and Ontario, Ohio, will be among the first stores to get the RadioShack Express treatment. Current employees of the franchisees will staff the store-within-a-store, which will be stocked with RadioShack merchandise purchased by the store. Stores with Express outlets will have special RadioShack branding inside and out to attract customers. There’s talk of the deal being extended chain-wide if the pilot program goes well.

Back from the Ashes?

This is obviously great news for the beleaguered electronics retailer that was once a neighborhood fixture. True, its parts selection was often less than complete, more so in recent years than in the chain’s heyday in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. And it’s true that prices were often astronomical compared to buying online. But on a Sunday afternoon, The Shack was a lifesaver for that last minute part needed to finish a project, and the premium was well worth the convenience. Watching the decline of the chain and seeing stores disappear one by one was a slow, sad process, so that makes this seems like an unqualified positive development.

But is it? On the face of it, there’s a lot of synergy between the HobbyTown offerings and what could be stocked in a RadioShack Express. I’ve never actually visited a HobbyTown myself — I plan to fix that now that I know I’ve got an outlet nearby, even if it doesn’t appear to be on the list of 50 early Express locations — so I can only go by what I see listed online for merchandise. But a store that sells every conceivable part for RC cars and planes, drones, model rockets, and STEM-related toys and kits seems a likely place to find customers for RadioShack’s offerings.

It won’t be clear until someone sees one of these Express kiosks first hand and reports back, but it seems like we might see something like the old “cabinet o’ components” that was found in the back of the most recent incarnation of RadioShack retail stores, along with a few shelves full of things like solder, wire, and tools. There may also be some items in the Arduino-Pi space, which would be really exciting, although that might run afoul of existing HobbyTown offerings. Still, one-stop shopping of everything from servos to MOSFETs would be a huge win for electronics hobbyists.

Not the Cell Phones Again!

But there may be cause for concern. Reports are that RadioShack Express locations will also offer services such as cell phone repairs. Dipping a toe into the cell phone market seemed to be the beginning of the end for RadioShack the first time through, and by the time it was clear to everyone that the chain was on death’s door, it was hard to go into a RadioShack store without being bombarded by cell phone sales pitches. To be brutally frank, I don’t take the early inclusion of cell phone repairs as an encouraging sign of the long-term viability of the RadioShack Express concept. Do we really need another place that fixes cell phones? The areas that HobbyTown stores tend to locate are rife with places that fix phones already, so I just don’t see the point. And it just smacks of the bad old days of RadioShack.

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic that this is a positive development for RadioShack, and I think it’s a win for electronics hobbyists overall. I’ll be keeping my eye on my local HobbyTown for the return of that iconic RadioShack logo, and looking forward to the day that I can pay a buck for a resistor again. Until then, if any readers happen to be near one of the combined locations when they open next week, we’d love a boots-on-the-ground report. Post your observations in the comments below, and pix or it didn’t happen.

[via r/amateurradio]

The C.H.I.P Returns, Maybe

Remember the C.H.I.P? The little ARM-based and Linux-capable single board computer that was launched in 2015 at what was then a seemingly impossibly cheap price of $9, then took ages to arrive before fading away and the company behind it going under? Like a zombie, it has returned from the dead!

So, should we be reaching for the staples of zombie movies, and breaking out the long-playing records? Or should we be cautiously welcoming it back into the fold, a prodigal son to the wider family of boards? Before continuing, it’s best to take a closer look.

The C.H.I.P that has returned is a C.H.I.P Pro, the slightly more powerful upgraded model, and it has done so because unlike its sibling it was released under an open-source licence. Therefore this is a clone of the original, and it comes from an outfit called Source Parts, who have put their board up for sale via Amazon, but with what looks suspiciously like a photo of an original Next Thing Co board. We can’t raise Source Parts’ website as this is being written so we can’t tell you much about its originator and whether this is likely to be a reliable supplier that can provide continuity, so maybe we’d suggest a little caution until more information has emerged. We’re sure that community members will share their experiences.

It’s encouraging to see the C.H.I.P Pro return, but on balance we’d say that its price is not the most attractive given that the same money can buy you powerful boards that come with much better support. The SBC market has moved on since the original was a thing, and to make a splash this one will have to have some special sauce that we’re just not seeing. If they cloned the Pocket C.H.I.P all-in-one computer with keyboard and display, now that would catch our attention!

It all seemed so rosy for the C.H.I.P at launch, but even then its competitors doubted the $9 BoM, and boards such as the Raspberry Pi Zero took its market. The end came in March this year, but perhaps there might be more life in it yet.

Thanks [SlowBro] for the tip.

A Farewell to Printrbot

It’s with a heavy heart that we must report Printrbot has announced they are ceasing operations. Founded in 2011 after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, the company set out to make 3D printing cheaper and easier. Their first printer was an amalgamation of printed parts and wood that at the time offered an incredible deal; when the Makerbot CupCake was selling for $750 and took 20+ hours to assemble, the Printrbot kit would only run you $500 and could be built in under an hour.

Brook Drumm, Founder of Printrbot

Printrbot got their foot in the door early, but the competition wasn’t far behind. The dream of Star Trek style replicators fueled massive investment, and for a while it seemed like everyone was getting into the 3D printing game. Kit built machines gave way to turn-key printers, and the prices starting coming down. Printrbot’s products evolved as well, dropping wood in favor of folded steel and pioneering impressive features like automatic bed leveling. In 2014 they released the Printbot Simple Metal, which ultimately became their flagship product and in many ways represents the high water mark for the company.

Eventually, overseas manufacturers saw an opportunity and started flooding the market with 3D printers that were cheaper than what many would have believed possible only a few years earlier. Today you can go online and buy a perfectly serviceable starter printer for under $200, even less if you’re still willing to build it yourself. For an American company like Printrbot, competing at this price point was simply an impossibility.

Rather than give up, Brook decided to take things in a different direction. If he couldn’t compete with imported machines on price, he would start building high end printers. A new version of the Simple Metal was introduced in 2016 with premium features such as linear rails and cloud-based slicing, complete with a premium price. From that point on, most new Printrbot products would release at over $1,000; putting them more in line with “prosumer” machines from companies like Ultimaker. For hacker types who got their first taste of 3D printing thanks to a cheap wooden Printrbot kit, this was something of a bittersweet moment.

At the same time, Brook’s natural hacker spirit and love of the open source community lead to a number of interesting side projects that never quite got off the ground. Most recently, he’d been putting the finishing touches on the Printrbelt, a 3D printer with a conveyor belt in place of a traditional bed. Such a machine could finally bridge the gap between desktop 3D printing and true small scale production capability.

When we saw Brook at the East Coast RepRap Festival, he brought along a new machine that the more cynical observer might have taken as foreshadowing. The Printrbot Easy was going to be a modified and rebranded FlashForge Finder, a final acknowledgement that the only way to compete with the Chinese manufactured 3D printers was to sell one of your own.

It’s always sad to see a tech company go under, but seeing the end of Printrbot is especially hard. Built in America with locally sourced components and with a commitment to keeping their machines open source, there was a lot to love about the plucky little 3D printer company from Lincoln, California. Printrbot was the quintessential hacker success story, and we’re proud to say we’ve been in their corner from the start. Here’s to wishing Brook Drumm and the entire Printrbot team success in their future endeavors; we’ll be keeping an eye out.

3D Printed Gun Saga: Court Case Over CAD Files Settled

Can you create 3D printed designs and distribute them freely and without restriction? Maybe, and it’s likely to become easier in the future. A settlement has been reached in the saga of the US Department of State versus Cody Wilson, and beginning August 1st the Defense Distributed library of gun designs will once again become available.

Cody is well known for creating the first 3D printed gun. He went on to found Defense Distributed, a company that published designs and technical files for 3D printing firearms before being pulled into litigation that sought to curb the distribution of such plans by subjecting them to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. Read that carefully, it’s the (international) distribution of CAD files at question here, and not the act of 3D printing, and Defense Distributed has been granted an ITAR exemption. Will other arms-related design files be similarly exempted? The settlement mentions upcoming rule changes seeking to make this type of exemption the standard.

As members of the Hackaday community, we’re the people to whom our friends and family turn for perspective when new technology makes it into their news feeds. Those with little or no exposure to 3D printing may easily fall to doom and gloom reports. But is this a story of doom and gloom? Absolutely not, guns are still guns and 3D printers are still 3D printers. Let’s take a look.

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Let’s Talk About Elon Musk’s Submarine

When word first broke that Elon Musk was designing a kid-sized submarine to help rescue the children stuck in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave, it seemed like a logical thing for Hackaday to cover. An eccentric builder of rockets and rocket-launched electric sports cars, pushing his engineering teams and not inconsiderable financial resources into action to save children? All of that talk about Elon being a real life Tony Stark was about to turn from meme into reality; if the gambit paid off, the world might have it’s first true superhero.

With human lives in the balance, and success of the rescue attempt far from assured (regardless of Elon’s involvement), we didn’t feel like playing arm-chair engineer at the time. Everyone here at Hackaday is thankful that due to the heroics of the rescuers, including one who paid the ultimate price, all thirteen lives were saved.

Many said it couldn’t be done, others said even saving half of the children would have been a miracle. But Elon’s submarine, designed and built at a breakneck pace and brought to Thailand while some of the children were still awaiting rescue, laid unused. It wasn’t Elon’s advanced technology that made the rescue possible, it was the tenacity of the human spirit.

Now, with the rescue complete and the children well on their way to returning to their families, one is left wondering about Elon’s submarine. Could it have worked?

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