A little bit of Silicon Valley, now in China
A technology accelerator opens its doors in Shenzhen
August 29, 2013
Accelerators, those boot camp-like development programs for start-ups, are common in Silicon Valley; many of the tech world's biggest up-and-comers, like Dropbox and Airbnb, began life in an accelerator. The best known have names like Y-Combinator, 500 Startups and Techstars; they've collectively become such an integral part of tech culture that earlier this year, a (short-lived) reality TV show was centered around one.
Now, accelerators are popping up in China, too. Haxlr8r, jointly located in San Francisco and Shenzhen, brings together Chinese and American entrepreneurs who each have the germ of an idea for a new product. During the four months of each class, the two-to-four person teams do intense product design and debugging, followed by a well-attended public debut of their sparkling new creations.
In Silicon Valley, accelerators tend to involve software, especially for mobile phones. But since China has such a robust manufacturing infrastructure, Haxlr8r's entrepreneurs work on hardware, in the sense of actual manufactured objects. In the case of Haxlr8r, hardware doesn't involve boring me-too copies of existing products, but instead, devices that implement some exceedingly innovative designs, the sort most people associate with an innovation-intensive company like Apple.
Gadgets for cooks, gamers and windsurfers
Some examples: A low-cost but high-quality kitchen immersion circulator that allows aspiring foodies to practice the popular new "sous vide" cooking technique that is shown all the time on the Food Network. A headset for gamers designed to boost their performance by zapping a small electrical current directly through the scalp to the neocortex. And a mobile phone plug-in that lets kite surfers, or anyone else who's interested, know exactly how quickly the wind is blowing.
Investors from both China and the U.S. are behind Haxlr8r, as are a number of familiar figures from the world of technology, including Nolan Bushnell, famous for his role as founder of Atari during the 1970s. In a typical accelerator program, each startup receives a set amount of money — in the case of Haxlr8r, it's $50,000 — in exchange for a percent of equity. The Haxlr8r companies often raise additional money via Kickstarter, the extremely popular crowd sourcing investing site.
Experienced entrepreneurs on hand to help
Haxlr8r opened its doors early last year, and runs two classes every 12 months; the fourth class is currently in session. The members of each class benefit from having access to a steady stream of speakers, usually successful entrepreneurs who drop by to offer advice. They also are expected to help each other, since they're all in the same boat: Having a great idea, but needing to come up with a business plan and a manufacturing prototype to turn the idea into reality.
The accelerator idea seems to be spreading in popularity with businesses in Asia. This summer, Samsung opened its own accelerator program in Palo Alto, though in Samsung's case, the focus will be on software rather than hardware.
As a hardware-oriented program, Haxlr8r's presence in China is one of the secrets to its success, said Cyril Ebersweiler, who co-founded the program. China's manufacturing base, he told Forbes, allows startups to get prototypes of revised designs from local sources in a few days, or even a few hours. "That's not the way hardware companies have been in the past, but that's how they'll need to be in the future," he said. "Very agile, with quick iteration."
Making hardware companies that are agile and able to turn on a dime: Yet another way that Chinese and American entrepreneurs are changing the way the world does business.