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July 18, 2018
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The making of a hardware founder

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Working in tech, it’s hard to avoid the many stories and congratulatory tweets about the latest company to close a funding round, and little wonder. It’s a milestone worth celebrating before getting back to work. Yet what’s happening in the trenches before those funding announcements roll out is often more instructive. How does one decide to make the leap in the first place? How do you mold a product or service into something that you can present to outsiders? How can you enlist people to help you when everyone you want to meet has more pressing demands on their time?

These are questions that many new founders wrestle with, including Sarah McDevitt, a college basketball star turned hardware founder whose product she hopes to have in consumers’ hands by this holiday season – even while she’s acutely aware that a lot has to go right first.

McDevitt didn’t anticipate being in this position five years ago when she was making a generous salary as a product manager at Microsoft, working a stone’s throw from where she’d grown up in Seattle. But like a lot of founders, McDevitt eventually felt compelled to start her now two-year-old company, Core Wellness, which aims to sell meditation experiences.

We checked in with her this week about how far along she has gotten, the obstacles she wasn’t expecting, and where she goes from here.

TC: You played college basketball at NYU, where you also studied math and computer science. Which was more fun?

SM: [Laughs.] In high school, I used to walk to a gym that was open at all hours of the night and play until my parents were like, ‘You have to come home.’ But I’ve always loved math and education, too.

TC: When you graduated, you went home to Seattle to work for Microsoft for five years. How did you get from there to launching a startup that makes it easier for people to meditate?

SM: I spent my last year at Microsoft on its social responsibility team, working on global education initiatives, and on work trip, I visited a university in South Africa that was incorporating meditation into its curriculum. I was amazed at the effects that meditation had on this student population that had endured in some cases extreme poverty and violence. It was really eye-opening to me.

I soon discovered Stanford’s learning design program and it was the thing that I was looking for. I knew I wanted to study stress and what happens in our bodies and how meditation and mindfulness can combat it. I still feel lucky that I got in.

TC: Did you want to teach about meditation or did you head to Stanford thinking you wanted to start a company?

SM: I thought I’d design something for high school districts to address mental well-being for teenagers. For my master’s thesis — which had to be a design project — I’d designed a kind of mini curriculum for high school students that any high school teacher could implement. That’s what led to the idea of Core. I thought it might be hard for teenagers to buy into meditation without meaningful bio feedback, which is at the root of what we’re building. I’d also started thinking about using a physical object that could help younger students practice mindfulness.

But the more research I did, the more I realized that adults really struggle with meditation. And when you look at how stress affects our brains and bodies, it’s clearly something we should be addressing. I wanted to see if I could create something that applies to adults as well.

TC: So step one was . . .

SM: Looking for a cofounder. I knew I wanted camaraderie. But I didn’t have anyone who was in on this idea with me, so it was like finding someone to marry without dating them. I posted on collaboration boards at Stanford about the skills I was looking for — electrical engineering, app development for an early prototype. I figured I’d find someone with the skills, then work with that person for a few hours a week and see how things went.

TC: You found that person, Brian Bolze, who is also Core’s head of product. Did you know it was a fit straightaway?

SM: We had coffee and really vibe’d on our worldview and mindset around mediation and the kind of brand I’d wanted to create. Then we started working together, five hours a week, then 10, then 20. Then suddenly, it was like, ‘Hey, so are you going to stay in school?’ He eventually took that leap, and I’m incredibly thankful to have him. I think the emotional partnership is just as important as having a skills match.

TC: Core is making both hardware and software. What was building that first hardware prototype like?

SM:  We started by using hobbyist materials like Arduino, and we used Stanford for 3D printing access and a hardware maker space that’s now out of business. I was also networking constantly through my Stanford classmates and previous coworkers, saying, ‘I’m looking for help with PCV manufacturing.’ or ‘Do you know someone who has invested in hardware before and can help us out.’

I was asking for a feedback as a way to get meetings. I did that a ton. Then we just started working on a prototype that was just functional enough to put in users’ hands and get feedback. The same was true with our business model. We’d ask for feedback from Stanford professors who’ve invested before, contacts I’d made, angel investors.

TC: You’ve raised a tiny bit of funding so far, from the hardware-focused venture firm Bolt and Bose, the speaker and headphones company. Can you talk about how that came together?

SM: Kate McAndrew, [a VC at Bolt] runs these women-in-hardware meetings and that’s kind of how I found my way into the community. My previous contacts were in software, so I went to her meet-ups to learn about the hardware business and eventually, over nine months, when she thought we were finally in a place to pitch Bolt’s partners, we did that.

TC: You’re based in San Francisco. Can I ask how, before you raised a bit of funding, how you were supporting yourself?

SM: Once we’d begun work on prototypes, we’d raised a friends-and-family round that we used to pay for industrial design help. Working at MIcrosoft, too, I’d saved a bunch of money. I didn’t necessarily have a reason why at the time but I naturally [spent] less than what I was making, knowing I wanted to enable myself some freedom. Grad school was incredibly expensive, but I did still have some savings I could live off for the first six months or so until we raised that family round.

TC: Were your friends and family receptive?

SM: It was really challenging for me personally. To go to people with this really new idea that has pretty much no validation and ask for money was hard. I did learn through that process there are a lot of people who want to support you, and a little bit from a lot of people adds up. It was enough to get to the point where we had functioning prototype. 

TC: How far away are you from selling to your first customer?

SM: In two months, we’ll have an exclusive public launch. We’re making a couple hundred meditation trainers with the goal in mind of finding our “core” tribe — people who love Core, latch onto it and keep coming back. Once we sell that and have that engagement data, we’ll go raise a seed round.

TC: This is a hardware product and subscription software. How much will you charge and how does it work?

SM: We’re charging $199 [for the handheld trainer], along with a monthly subscription with personalized content. We’ll also be launching virtual meditation classes so that you can check in with live instructors and feel connected to a community of other people meditating with you.

TC: How are you personalizing the content?

SM: By using data to recommend to you content that we know will be effective for you. The first step [in meditation] is to turn your attention to one thing; we’re helping you do that by giving you this grounding, comforting object with a pulse that guides you through breathing exercises and technique.

As for personalized recommendations, if you’ve been a user for a while and we see [based on biosensor data] that a body scan technique has been effective, we might say in the app, ‘Hey, this, four-minute body scan has been really effective in reducing stress so let’s try this today.’

TC: How much seed funding do you hope to raise?

SM: We’re targeting $4 million, most immediately to fund a holiday launch and enter the market.

TC: And if you miss that window?

SM: I don’t think we need to wait for another. There’s huge demand for help with meditation.

TC: And you’ll be selling exclusively through your site or are you talking with possible distribution partners?

SM: We’re partnering with yoga and fitness studios on events and experiences and meditation stations. We also have some pop-up experiences planned with brands in the Bay Area.

TC: Building hardware is hard. What’s the biggest thing that’s gone wrong?

SM: First, I will say that the hardware community is extremely helpful and collaborative, unlike the world of enterprise software, which is pretty cutthroat and where people are more closed off to helping others. We’ve gotten so much help from other founders.

Still, you’re right. As one example, we were getting our electrodes from a prototyping shop in China, and they have to be stainless steel 304 to be conductive. When they sent the electrodes to us and they weren’t working, we did all this variable isolation before eventually figuring out that they’d used a different metal alloy. When we told them, they were like, ‘Yeah. They’re stainless steel 304.’ [Laughs.] It was a bad setback, but now metals testing happens much earlier in the process, and we might not have thought of that being a necessary step otherwise. You also learn the importance of a timeline buffer for things like that to happen.

TC: Are you meeting with investors yet?

SM: I’m out networking. We’re not fundraising yet, but we’re having the right conversations. That way investors are aware of what we’re doing and that we’re coming.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Bolt Threads joins Modern Meadow in the quest to bring lab-grown leather to market

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There’s a new world of lab-grown replacements coming for everything from the meat department in your grocery store to a department store near you.

Lab-made leather replacements will soon join vegetable-based meat replacements on store shelves thanks to startups like Bolt Threads, which today announced that it would join companies like Modern Meadow in the quest to bring vegetable-based replacements for animal hides to market.

Earlier this year, the Silicon Valley-based Bolt Threads raised a $123 million financing to expand its business beyond the manufacture of spider silk which had brought the company acclaim — and an initial slate of products.

The announcement today of its new product, Mylo, is the first step on that path.

Working with established partner, Stella McCartney, and using technology licensed from the biomaterials company Ecovative Design, Bolt is bringing Mylo’s mushroom-based leather replacement to the world in a debut of one of McCartney’s Falabella bag designs made from the mushroom material.

The first bag will be available at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Fashioned from Nature exhibit, open to the public on April 21st in London.

In an interview with Fast Company last year, McCartney discussed her commitment to sustainability. “I don’t think you should compromise anything for sustainability,” McCartney told the magazine. “The ultimate achievement for me is when someone comes into one of my stores and buys a Falabella bag thinking it’s real leather.”

While Bolt Threads is licensing its technology from Ecovative Design, Modern Meadow is choosing to develop its own intellectual property for growing a replacement leather.

Taking a different path to its California-based competitor, Brooklyn’s Modern Meadow model is going for a mass market while Bolt Threads is more bespoke.

The East Coast company partnered with the European chemical giant Evonik — and has raised over $40 million dollars from billionaire backers like Peter Thiel’s Breakout Ventures and Horizons Ventures (financed by Li Ka Shing — one of China’s wealthiest men) — along with the Singaporean investment giant, Temasek.

Both companies are examples of how animal husbandry is being replaced by technology in the search for a more sustainable way to feed and clothe the world’s growing population. It’s a population that’s demanding quality goods without sacrificing sustainable industrial practices — all things that are made possible by new material — and data — science along with novel manufacturing capabilities that show promise in taking things from the laboratory to the heart of the animal industries they’re looking to replace.

This is a pattern that’s not just happening in fashion, but being replicated in food science as well.

How quickly the change will come — and how viable these alternatives will be — depend on them scaling to meet a broad consumer demand. One purse in a museum show isn’t enough. Once there are hundreds of handbags on Target shelves — that’s when the revolution won’t need to be televised, because it will already have been commercialized.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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