After years of software domination, there just might be gold in Silicon Valley's hills for electrical engineers, as well.
"Despite the amazingly high cost of living, and the extraordinary opportunities for frittering away money, everyone in early San Francisco was supremely confident that he would soon be able to return home with an incalculable amount of gold." -- The Barbary Coast, 1933
The latest California Gold Rush (there have been many since 1849) is hardware startups. Businesses like Nest, Oculus Rift, and Makerbot have been acquired for princely sums. That, combined with the advent of crowdfunding sites and easy prototyping tools like Arduino and 3D printing, has encouraged lots of people to get out there and start panning for gold.
Full disclosure: I'm one of those people. I co-founded Dash Robotics in 2013 with the mission of putting a robot in every child's hands. I've been living the hardware startup experience for the past year, and it's been great. The amount you learn, the people you meet, and the excitement of a startup are unparalleled.
I'm also starting to notice some patterns.
It's really a great time to start a technology business, especially for hardware. I am seeing massive changes in how people design and prototype electrical and mechanical systems, manufacture those systems, and fund businesses that build and sell those systems.
All this has happened over a very short period. Compared to even 12 months ago, products are designed very differently now. That is especially true for the incoming generation of engineers who are using new tools and techniques that larger companies do not seem to have fully embraced yet.
In that vein, I'd like to look at something I think would be of great interest to this community: the electronics and the startups behind them that are fueling this hardware revolution in many ways.
Most of the big acquisitions and success stories so far have been companies that build consumer products (think FitBit, GoPro, Beats by Dre), but there also has been a surge in companies that build products to, well, build more products. In a gold rush, it can be very lucrative to sell picks and axes. Hand in hand with the explosion of hardware startups has been a virtual explosion of hardware-startup platforms. Some of these platforms are services, like Shopify, ShopLocket, and Shipwire. But a lot of them are hardware startups themselves.
Want to build an Internet-connected product? Get yourself a Spark Core. Are you a software developer who wants to build hardware? You need a Tessel. Maybe you just want to talk to an object over Bluetooth, or you want to embed a microprocessor in the smallest of places. You'll want an RFDuino or Digispark. And, of course, I can't neglect everyone's favorite single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi.
What does this mean for the global electronics community? It means things are changing quickly. Development platforms are evolving, and many young engineers are learning Arduino for embedded programming before they learn C. They're more likely to get started on an Atmel AVR than a dsPIC.
It also means that the field is still fairly wide open. These development tools are not yet fully entrenched. With a little bit of skill, knowhow, and some branding, you could build the next great hardware platform.
However, this window may be closing quickly. Standards are getting established, and being just a few steps ahead can make a huge difference. In many ways, a BeagleBone Black is preferable to a Raspberry Pi, but even it may struggle to catch up to a market leader with a brand name, a community, and a head start. That being said, the head start is nowhere near as big as the one market leaders had five or 10 years ago.
For the last two decades, software has been king. After a long hiatus, there just might be gold in Silicon Valley's hills for electrical engineers, as well. Design a better pick and axe, sit back, and watch folks like me pan for gold.
Nick Kohut will be chronicling his adventures running a startup in this blog. He spent most of the last 10 years in engineering school, first at the University of Illinois, where he earned a BSME, and then at UC Berkeley, where he got his MS and PhD in mechanical engineering while working in a EE lab. Then he was a postdoc at Stanford for a little while, but he left in 2013 to co-found the robotics startup Dash Robotics.