When fledgling startups go through a typical accelerator program, they come out armed with business knowledge, industry contacts, and seed funding. For companies working on software, that may be enough of a jump start to get them going. But for hardware startups, it's not enough.
"People come out of [accelerators like] Y Combinator and Techstars, and they're super well prepared on the business side, but horribly prepared on the product side. They have no idea how to manufacture products, or about logistics, or quality," says Ben Einstein, the co-founder and managing director of Bolt, a new hardware accelerator in Boston.
Einstein knows something about getting products ready for market. Before launching Bolt, he founded a design consultancy that worked with large companies. Originally, he envisioned Bolt as a product design firm that young companies could afford—but quickly realized that "the fundamental flaw in the consulting world is that you're not aligned with customers," he says. By investing in companies (each of the seven startups chosen for the first class will get a $50,000 investment), Bolt has a stake in their success. "Equity is wonderful at aligning people," he explains.
The accelerator raised $3.5 million from Logitech, Autodesk, and the venture capital firm Grishin Robotics to get off the ground and build a 6,000-square-foot shop floor featuring $1 million worth of in-house prototyping equipment.
Bolt's first class, whittled down from more than 850 applicants, is a few weeks into its program and works across a range of industries. There's Subsidence, a company that produces local atmospheric data from weather stations; Petnet, which is working on intelligent pet products; Loci Controls, which is helping landfills collect methane and generate energy; BeTH, a company working on custom-fit prosthetic devices and orthotics; BlabDroid, which is building social robots; Behavioral Technologies, working on wearable gadgets that influence our behavior; and Padloc, which is working on tablet hardware.
The companies have access to a full-time design and engineering staff, seed capital, prototyping equipment, and the consulting firm Dragon Innovation (which has previously worked on products from MakerBot and Pebble), a $100,000 credit line for electronic components, and discounts on rapid prototyping materials.
Einstein hopes that all of these tools will help Bolt's startups avoid the pitfalls often faced by hardware startups, such as understanding the full costs of scaling up production of prototypes early on. "Problems are usually around being ill-prepared for success...plus or minus a dollar can throw off a business," he says. "A 15-minute conversation here [could save] six-months of redevelopment time." For example, he says, Bolt helped one company catch an error in its board designs before it went ahead and approved a costly production step.
Want to apply for Bolt's next class? Einstein says the most important asset is to have a founding team with a great story and some pizzazz. Recommendations from people who are well-respected in your industry don't hurt, either. Bolt is industry-agnostic—though five out of the seven companies in the first class sell their services to other businesses.
"It allows them to scale much more quickly. They can take their customers out to dinner and understand what works and what doesn't about a product," says Einstein. Companies can apply on Bolt's website anytime, but a formal call for applications will be announced soon.