Adam Benzion is the co-founder of Hackster, a global community for hardware hackers and starters. A Microsoft alumni and a hardware entrepreneur, Adam moderates The Hardware Startup group on LinkedIn.
The never-ending boom of fledgling software companies in the past decade has triggered scores of accelerators around the world to support them. Now that hardware startups are joining the game, a new breed of accelerators is coming to life to meet their unique demands.
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But with hardware already being a fairly high-risk game, you’ll need to separate the true leaders from the trendy followers to get the support you need. So how do you decide which organization is the right one for you?
In my recent research and hands-on experience working as a hardware entrepreneur and co-founder of Hackster, I have found at least 50 hardware accelerators across six continents. Without a doubt, many of them are great, and some will grow to be major contenders.
The five listed here, however, are the true “Top 5,” which I say based both on peer reputation and personal experience with the people who envisioned, created and are leading these accelerators.
If you don’t or can’t go with one of these, look for the criteria they all share: Leadership commitment, location, access to mentors, access to capital and long-standing roots—at least 10 years—in hardware manufacturing prior to creating their programs.
Should building hardware be your next act of voluntary insanity, here are the people who can help you survive the asylum:
Possibly the best known brand in the industry, this San Francisco accelerator is backed by PCH, one of the world’s largest manufacturing outsourcers. Combine this unique relationship with an impressive team of committed hardware experts and a Bay Area location, and it’s easy to understand how Highway1 is able to attract an incredible lineup of startups and mentors.
Here you’ll find some of the industry’s best, from VP Brady Forrest, founder of Ignite, to mentors like Scott Norman, a rocket scientist at SpaceX, and Jennifer McCormick who runs one of the top UX firms in the Bay Area.
Highway1’s program, which offers investment in the range of $50,000 in exchange for equity, accepted 12 startups during its last batch for a four-month program, which includes a Shenzhen manufacturing trip. The teams are focused on consumer segments, but not exclusively.
HAXLR8R is one of my favorite programs for hardware startups for a couple of reasons. First, the people who join the program are extremely committed, flexible, and even adventurous, which is appropriate considering the endeavor ahead of them. After all, a program which requires you to drop everything and move to China for 16 weeks is self-selecting the kind of individuals that won’t give up on a dream.
Second is the track record. Take Spark, a company that started with a consumer electronics products. Upon graduating from HAXLR8R, Spark became a development and technology platform for IoT, and is doing very well.
HAXLR8R’s commitment to the community and mission is embodied in team members like Cyril Ebersweiler and Benjamin Joffe who live in Shenzhen to run the program there hands on (look for their regularly-posted words of wisdom on Slideshare.)
There is no better place to learn the ropes than in Shenzhen, across the street from the world’s largest market for electronics components. Relocation is required, $100k investments is offered in exchange for a 9 percent stake, and up to 15 startups per class join its 111 day program in Shenzhen.
Bolt is venture capital designed for hardware. One of the best, most focused places to build your hardware dreams, Bolt works primarily with B2B companies and consumer products with recurring revenue. It offers seed funding, a high-end prototyping shop, support from a full-time engineering and design staff and assistance with manufacturing and commercialization.
Led by Ben Einstein and Dragon Innovation’s f founder and CEO, Scott Miller, Bolt has a lot to offer. Relocation is preferred but not required and companies are often in residence for 6 months to a year. With a killer team that aspires to be more partners than mentors, Bolt is another great option.
Lemnos Labs is a little less well-known, but for those who are in the know it is considered an A-Lister. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Eric Klein, a founding member with a long history of building cutting-edge hardware and software (Palm, Bungee Studios, Nokia) and his passion, focus and authenticity truly captivated me.
Like its peers, Lemnos sports a state of the art facility and a team of world-class experts. Its San Francisco-based program offers up to $250K in funding with a 10 percent stake, admitting up to 12 startups per year, focused on aerospace, robotics, transportation, agriculture and IoT (both consumer and B2B).
This Flextronics-backed organization is actually more of a hardware venture eco-system than an accelerator. The team invested more than $10M in two of their portfolio companies, and most of their portfolio sees between $500K-$1M.
LabIX is also focused more on technology platforms than finished products. Led by a group of manufacturing, venture and product experts in the heart of Silicon Valley like veteran investor Lior Susan and manufacturing expert Rich Sheridan, LabIX has an impressive track record launching strong hardware startups.
Year-round applications are open for both B2C and B2B products. It sports super-impressive equipment that only companies like Flextronics can afford and an awesome workspace. Its roots go back to helping Powermat liftoff and continue to some of the newest companies, like Edyn.
Not living in the US, Silicon Valley or not feeling the Shenzhen love? There are many other places for you to explore. In Europe you will find an excellent upstart in Estonia called Buildit.EE, in Germany Hardware.co, and from my hometown in Seattle, Microsoft Ventures is supporting hardware startups with strong presence in India, China, the US and of course Israel.
NYC’s Tech Stars R/GA Accelerator is also an up-and-coming launching pad for hardware.
Your options are plentiful. But hardware is still hardware, and as you probably already know, it can be hard to build, sell and profit from. Do yourself a favor and pick one of the top hardware accelerators to mitigate your risk, help you succeed and yes, even have fun while you’re at it!