Relate #3- Hardware Edition, Berlin

November 14, 2014

What better place to meet up for innovation crazed and idea driven individuals than one of “Europe’s hottest startup capitals” — Berlin. On November 14, Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG) kindly hosted the “Relate280 — Hardware Innovation” mic and mingling event for promising hardware entrepreneurs from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Having noticed a certain closure of the western startup scene to the eastern one, lack of communication and connection between the two, organizers of the event, Sleighdogs, decided to attempt to “patch it up” by providing space for bright minds from both sides to meet, share experiences and discuss possible cooperation.

To give an impression and overview of what happened that night, who came, and why you have to be there next time, we’ve prepared the following report… Enjoy!

“Relate280 — Hardware Innovation” is the third event in the series organized by a growing software pioneer and company builder Sleighdogs this year, following “Relate280” in Prague and partial partnership with the project “4531km”. Since members of the company headquarter in both Prague and Berlin, it was quite natural for them to come up with the idea of bringing the two local scenes they are involved in together. Development of a strong network that shares common values and thus establishing a certain “gateway” between the capitals — Berlin and Prague — has been set as the primary goal of this and other events in the “Relate280” series. As the co-founder of Sleighdogs, Karl Karafiat noted,

“This event was all about: start local, start with those you like and connect them.”

This time around, two hardware developers, Karel Hulec, co-founder of VR Union (Czech Republic), and Andrej Mosat, managing partner of and Vestigen (Slovakia), came all the way to Berlin to present their products and give the attendees a chance to be one of the first to try them.

The third speaker was a doctoral researcher at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Robin P.G. Tech, who touched upon the effective strategies, challenges and perspectives for innovative hardware entrepreneurs in Europe. He also proposed an idea for the establishment of a specialized hardware company builder. Unlike the rather artificial and classic “pitching presentation” sessions that come to mind, the event turned out something different. It felt cozy and friendly, while the informal presentations brought up questions that grew into all-night discussions…

The streets of Berlin were rather chilly that night, so the trip in the elevator up to the 6th floor pleasantly warmed up and gave a few seconds to ponder what this event would be like and who would be there. Upon entering, everyone wrote their names on tape-tags and filled out short questionnaires, took a Polaroid snapshot and taped profiles onto a glass partition. Deeper into the room, you could find a few curious prototypes, among which were the Oculus RiftUp, virtual reality glasses from VR Union, and a MakerBot 3D Printer, which made an adorable cute little brown bunny to melt everyone. While beers helped people break the ice and start conversations, the other room with a projector, a few bean bag and box-shaped chairs awaited and welcomed everyone to the presentation part of the evening.

Opening the night, Karel Hulec and Vítězslav Plachý from VR Union, Prague, started with outlining three major problems with virtual reality they have observed these days and solutions to them they came up with. Karel explained the need to perfect the present model’s screen quality as crucial, in order to reach 100% resemblance of reality and virtual world. He introduced their prototype of HD screen quality upgrade to the popular virtual reality glasses Oculus Rift: RiftUP. In 2014, the “RiftUP!” Indiegogo campaign raised $25,000, which will allow the company to manufacture hardware on a bigger scale as well as launch further research. As for now, one set’s estimated price is around €2,000, which VR Union plans to decrease to €800.

Other challenges they have been facing were: fully functioning hand tracking for VR and content creation, which now mostly consists of gaming software.

So far, they have used the Dragonfly motion sensor from Leap Motion. It improves the VR experince significantly, yet still has such drawbacks as, for instance, inability to type on keyboard in VR.

Concerning content focus, VR Union introduced its ongoing project, “World of Comenius,” which aims to bring out the educational potential behind virtual reality and ways to integrate it into state school systems in Europe. So far, they have introduced and tested the software, which allows students to explore the human body up close and even take a look to see what is inside a heart and brain.

Although the response they have received at the advanced learning gymnasium Mendlova in Opava was positive and encouraging, Karel underlined that content creation is something they cannot cope to produce all by themselves. That is why they have decided to design an open source content creation software that would enable almost everyone to contribute and even gain profit from it. Attendees were also the first ones to hear about the upcoming new content that VR Union plans to introduce during Leap Motion 3D Jam. It is promised to resemble a Minecraft-like construction tool for virtual reality. Although certain questions of price and marketing arose in the audience, the presentation concluded on an upbeat note, with Karel’s closing words being,

“This is the future we’re heading to.”

Following them, Andrej Mosat shared a personal life-story of how a dream becomes a strong potential for a successful startup. In Andrej’s case, it was the drive and wish to become a doctor. Although he never got his PhD in Medicine, Andrej got as close to it as he could by creating simply structured, yet efficient medical and optical devices.

He started off with the development of the Spectruino prototype. This tool is an open hardware USB spectro-photometer on the base of Arduino technology, which helps to analyze light and learn more about optics. Although this invention, among other things, can boast of being used during NASA/JAXA rocket space mission to the ISS, it was not enough to stop Andrej and his dream.

Next up for him, together with Vestigen team, was the medical diagnosis tool NephroSense, which made its debut at “Relate280- Hardware Innovation.” It is promised to allow people with chronic kidney disease, hepatitis or other problems, as well as perfectly healthy individuals, to monitor overall organs condition, by applying liquids, like blood or urine, on sensor sticks.

The device then collects data from the sample and sends out the results to your communication devices, keeping yourself and, if necessary, your doctors updated in real time. With his presentation, Andrej gave an insight on the motivations and possibilities that such a device would open for people. As described on their official webpage,

“Science fiction is becoming reality.”

He envisions this device freeing people from the need to do checkups with doctors and instead addressing them with already justified concerns. The prototype now awaits its second round of funding for further development of chemical layer for the sensors, in order to launch them into mass production.

Eventually, the company wants to make this device open source hardware, but so far, it searches for prominent marketing and distribution solutions, aside from technical touchups. The developers showed assurance and positivity about their product, offering it for a test and underlining that as long as there is motivation and a dream behind a simple technological idea,

“it is not a matter of how to bring it to the market, but when this is going to happen,”

as Andrej put it.

To wrap up all the ideas and everything brought to table that night, Robin Tech chose a more communicative and dialogue-based approach. In his presentation he called for atendees to contemplate the future and challenges of the hardware innovation scene in Europe.

To give some perspective and comparison, Robin spoke of a few examples of U.S. startups he had a chance to get to know during his experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was there that he learned a few keys that might become crucial in launching an actual startup from a dream in your head.

The first and foremost point in the presented list of “tips for startupers” was:

• Build a strong social network,

which will eventually bring on-board specialists useful for the project, as well as private investors, known as “business angels.” Additionally, sharing a network of acquaintances significantly improves chances of mutual understanding and agreement on terms and requirements of technological prototypes between a probable investor and inventor. Another advice from Robin was:

• Always think bigger and begin pioneering markets of various countries straight away from the start.

At the same time, he noted,

•There should be no fear of failing.

“Fail fast and good”, as they say.

From failure always comes knowledge.

Understanding the challenges that amateur hardware entrepreneurs face, Robin proposed a solution in the form of a company builder organization that will assist young European inventors at all the steps: including the creation of business and marketing strategies, finding investors for all stages of development, and allowing tech people to do what they’re best at: focus on technology. The idea was generally supported by everyone and Karel Hulec even mentioned they would gladly join something like this, if it existed.

As there were more and more questions concerning the details, everyone could not wait to move on to engage in informal communication and product testing portion of the night.

Some spoke in pairs, some discussed in groups, while others preferred to dive into virtual reality and deep into a human heart.

Although a few had to leave earlier, the majority became so engrossed in the conversations that time flew by unnoticed, clearly showing that the goal was achieved and the first steps in bringing the European entrepreneurs closer together were made.

“It is these kinds of things that make European integration work, not these dictated integration rules from Brussels,”

commented Andrej Mosat.

Even if it is too early to announce the next date to mark in the calendar, Sleighdogs are thrilled and driven to continue the “Relate280” series.

Meanwhile, “Relate280 — Hardware Innovation” proved once again that no matter what you do, if you have the right people around, you will always be a success…

Sleighdogs and all the participants would like to express special gratitude to the Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft for providing the platform for this event to happen.

Written by Valeryia Bulavskaya
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