Boom in hardware startups hits Techstars Boston

EcoVent is the maker of a more efficient heating and cooling vent.
EcoVent is the maker of a more efficient heating and cooling vent.

Techstars, a program for assisting and investing in technology startups, is generally thought of as the most prestigious program of its kind in Boston. But from the launch of Techstars Boston in 2009 until this year, the accelerator program had almost exclusively accepted startups in the software arena.

For the 2014 class, a major shift occurred: Out of a dozen startups, three are developing hardware devices and one is in a related space, with software to let physical devices communicate with each other over the Internet.

The hardware startups are developing a more efficient heating and cooling vent, a motion sensor device for action sports such as kiteboarding, and a vending machine that bottles water and other beverages on the spot.

The increased emphasis on physical technology at Techstars comes amid a boom in hardware startups on the national level. Tools that have made devices easier to develop and hardware-focused crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter have aided a surge in hardware innovation in recent years. Among the largest recent acquisitions of startups have included Nest Labs, maker of a “smart” thermostat that Google acquired for $3.2 billion, and Oculus Rift, developer of a virtual reality headset that Facebook bought for $2 billion.

Today, the 12 startups that are part of the 2014 spring session of Techstars Boston came to a close with the customary “Demo Day” business pitches.

And not only were there many more hardware-related startups than usual, the hardware companies were among the most impressive of the group, in my view, with a substantial amount of progress in each case.

For instance, EcoVent has installed its new heating and cooling system — which allows for each room’s temperature to be individually controlled by a mobile device or computer — in five test homes in the Boston area. And in each case, the homes have been able to save on their heating and cooling costs while getting a more comfortable temperature from room to room, said founder Dipul Patel. EcoVent now has 20 more homes ready to buy systems, he said.

The two other hardware startups also showed serious traction. Woo, which offers the motion control sensor to track performance in action sports, reports it has gotten Red Bull interested in using the technology in competitions and has a $250,000 purchase order from Best Kiteboarding. And Refresh — whose vending machine allows for on-the-spot bottling, saving transportation costs — said it has been seeing major interest from customers that’ve been using a prototype at the Brooklyn Boulders gym in Somerville.

Meanwhile, a fourth startup, Onion, has developed software that turns hardware into “smart” devices by connecting them to the Internet. For instance, the software can allow a heating and cooling system to connect to the Internet so that it can be automatically turned off when a room is vacant.

Ultimately, while it’s not a huge surprise that Techstars has embraced hardware, it does show a willingness to change with the times at the prominent program.

And more change is coming soon: Angel investor Semyon Dukach is now taking over as director of Techstars Boston from Katie Rae and Reed Sturtevant, who have led the program since 2011. The next Techstars Boston session begins Aug. 11.

For a full recap, check out Scott Kirsner’s Demo Day scorecard.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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