Between September 16th-20th this year, Denver was overflowing with out-of-towners for Denver Startup Week. (Which was much to the dismay of native Denverite Uber passengers.) Here, you can read about the many physical product development related goings-on at this free conference. There were a lot.

See below for the video:

The Venue

I try not to be needlessly negative but this should be said: wow, the venues were a serious pain to get to. Be advised if you attend next year! Initially, I didn’t look up the locations of all the events I earmarked before flying to Colorado. I assumed most of them would be in the same location with some stray venues here and there. That was absolutely incorrect.

Halp. Here were some of the venues I managed to get to. Did I mention this was my first time ever in Denver?
Halp. Here were some of the venues I managed to get to. Did I mention this was my first time ever in Denver?

I began to refer to Denver Startup Week (DSW) as the Denver Scavenger Hunt. It was all over the place with limited parking in most spots. Moreover, many of the events I wanted to attend had overlapping schedules. The advice from DSW to help ease this mess was to be greener and use the public buses or an Uber. Although, I think that would have just made the time constraints and expenses even worse. In the end, it was nice to see so many interesting bits of Denver. Wish I could have done that on my own time, though!

Physical Product Showcase

I was pleasantly surprised at how many cool products there were on display at the showcase. If you can only make one event from Denver Startup Week and want to get a taste for new tech developments in Colorado, go to this.

Robauto

This company is building a robot on a basic AI platform that even younger kiddos can get some programming and building experience with. The students they’ve worked with range from 3rd to 6th grade! I was told the googley eyes are often a must-have. Well, of course.

One of Robauto's cute, little googley-eyed AI robots.
One of Robauto’s cute, little googley-eyed AI robots.

Originally, founder Jalali Hartman wanted to build a low-cost but advanced AI robot to wander around. And so, he did! Kids build their own bots and end up contributing to the code that runs them all. After giving these to schools and libraries, he learned larger corporations had use for them, too. However, it’s more of a platform for other tech for the automotive, healthcare and aerospace companies Robauto serves.

Skip to minute marker 5:18 in the video above to see these bots in action.

Outdoor Element

There’s a new kind of Swiss Army Knife in town. This one can make fire!

This hunting survival knife has a flint wheel built into it and an inside storage space for tinder.
This hunting survival knife has a flint wheel built into it and an inside storage space for tinder.

Founder of Outdoor Element, Mike Mojica got his inspiration for many of the products he engineered from others. On one hand, he learned first-responders would find specific functionality in a neat multi-tool really useful in emergencies. In another case, he learned one of the versions made it too difficult for his young daughter to make fire with. So, he made it much easier. He insists this was a good decision.

Below is the first product in the line. It’s a survival bracelet made of jute which contains a spark-thrower at the clasp. The one-use fibers of the bracelet can be torn apart to be tinder for a fire in an emergency situation.

Here's the first product in the Outdoor Element's line: a survival bracelet made of flammable jute.
Here’s the first product in the Outdoor Element’s line: a survival bracelet made of flammable jute.

The bracelet made aiming the sparks difficult for Mojica’s 6-year-old, so he designed a new gadget. He thought it’s easier to control sparks that are made with wheels. Also, carabiners are really friggin handy. So, he decided to create a carabiner with a spark wheel and threw in some other functionality. That proved popular, so after some input from first responders, he created the 2nd version which just recently went live on Kickstarter. They’ve already surpassed their goal but you can still get in on the special pricing.

The Version 2 carabiner, called the “Fire Escape,” also includes a window breaker and a safety cutter to go through things like seat belts.

The Version 2 carabiner: the Fire Escape by Outdoor Element on Kickstarter now!
The Version 2 carabiner: the Fire Escape by Outdoor Element on Kickstarter now!

You can watch our interview with Mike Mojica in the video at the top starting at marker 20:57.

Cipher Skin

This company is making an absolutely wild wearable. Cipher Skin‘s booth had a demo with one poor engineer who was made to move his leg around all day long. He wore a stretchable sleeve around his knee and part of his leg. As he moved, the app could graphically recreate the motion of his leg based on sensors in the sleeve. No green screen required.

Cipher Skin in action: as the real leg moves, the blue dummy graphic on the tablet moves identically.
Cipher Skin in action: as the real leg moves, the blue dummy graphic on the tablet moves identically.

Co-founders Shaka Bahadu and Craig Weller taught me about the magic going on inside the sleeve. There’s a mesh of flexible ink printed on the inside diameter with customizable sensors affixed to nodes along the circuit.

Inside a Cipher Skin wearable device that can track your movements with legit, objective metrics!
Inside a Cipher Skin wearable device that can track your movements with legit, objective metrics!

As the leg moves, some of the lines of black conductive ink might stretch and that would change the dimensions of the “wire”. This, in turn, would change the electrical resistance. These electrical changes can be tracked and correlated precisely with movement. Alternatively, if this device is stuck on a pipe with different sensors, you could track things like leaks. For human applications, these are great additions for tracking progress in physical rehabilitation. They’re probably great for a slew of other aims, too!

You can watch video footage of the movement (and Bahadu and Weller) starting at marker 8:20.

Pupptech

As a dog and automobile lover, I delighted in seeing Pupptech‘s product which helps keep both safe. It’s for when you’d like to keep your pet in the car but worry about the climate becoming unsafe while you’re away. This device measures the weather of your car’s interior and connects to an app on your phone. Another key part of this system is a sticker you can affix to your car to tell do-gooders that it’s OK for them to put down their crowbars; Sparky is safe.

PuppTech sells a cellular device that monitors the environment inside your car to keep your puppy safe. Dog not included.
PuppTech sells a cellular device that monitors the environment inside your car to keep your puppy safe. Dog not included.

Founder, William Loopesko, showed us the many physical prototype iterations they developed before ever thinking about crowdfunding. These included a bunch of 3D printing and boards he hand-soldered.

The chronological display of PuppTech prototypes from first (left) through to the first version they crowdfunded on (where William Loopesko is pointing).
The chronological display of PuppTech prototypes from first (left) through to the first version they crowdfunded on (where William Loopesko is pointing).

You can watch the video starting at 12:47 to hear Loopesko talk about Pupptech’s development. Or, hop on their website to pre-order!

Karvtrak

Karvtrak is creating a brace to help older (and more battered) skiers last longer on the slopes and have more power. They’re kind of making a mechanical-only, more budget-friendly version of the ski exoskeleton by Roam Robotics we featured here. Karvtrak’s brace provides physical support to the skier in similar locations, however, it lacks that super turbo-boosting electric power or AI to learn how you ski. Although, if Roam’s device is out of your price range, Karvtrak is aiming for a retail price several thousands of dollars less.

Mark Stewart (left) and Jan Andersen (right) talk about this wild idea all the founders dreamed up together.
Mark Stewart (left) and Jan Andersen (right) talk about this wild idea all the founders dreamed up together.

If you want to play with these, get in touch with them on their website. There should be units available to demo starting this season and mass-produced units available next (2020-2021) ski season. To see Mark Stewart and Jan Andersen show how they work, watch the video at the top of this article from marker 6:18.

Beatrice Forms

You may think you’re bougie, but until you’ve had a mannequin custom-built to your body shape for the ultimate in tailored clothing, you’re missing out. Beatrice Forms can remotely create a form off of your dimensions using tech your tailor never had. I say dimensions because there is no tape-measuring involved. They use video, photogrammetry, 3D modeling, and CNC tools. There’s a whole lot of data points going on.

To the right is an example of the full-sized custom shape Beatrice Forms creates.
To the right is an example of the full-sized custom shape Beatrice Forms creates.

The husband-and-wife, engineer team, Alison Hughes and Nathan Barefield, were at the booth to explain their fascinating tech.

Alison Hughes and Nathan Barefield of Beatrice Forms kindly answering my endless questions about the modeling and form-making tech they developed.
Alison Hughes and Nathan Barefield of Beatrice Forms kindly answering my endless questions about the modeling and form-making tech they developed.

It works like this: a shipment is sent to the customer which includes clothing proven to work well for this application. The customer has a buddy take a video of them from a cell phone, making several passes around the body. The video is processed and between a dose of photogrammetry, a splash of 3D model smoothing, and other editing, a fine, polished 3D model is created.

Afterward, that model tells their custom-built CNC router how to sculpt a block of foam to create your torso in real life. Barefield told us the foam block spins around like a rotisserie chicken while the router goes in to cut the shape.

Nathan Barefield demonstrates the rotisserie chicken-style action of Beatrice Form's custom CNC router.
Nathan Barefield demonstrates the rotisserie chicken-style action of Beatrice Form’s custom CNC router.

If you’re interested in getting a form made for some high-quality tailoring, you can now! (Although you may need to wait for this form to tell you they’re in stock.) They’re already creating and shipping these to customers.

For more information directly from this pair, watch the video starting at 15:18.

GolfKicks

If you ever wanted to turn your Birkenstocks into a pair of golf shoes, you’re in luck! GolfKicks makes screw-in golf cleats. With these, you can add gripping power to most any shoe.

GolfKicks makes screw-in golf cleats so you can turn your favorite shoes into golf shoes.
GolfKicks makes screw-in golf cleats so you can turn your favorite shoes into golf shoes.

If nothing else, checking out the products at this showcase and learning about their development is a great learning lesson for new HW developers. Even these deceptively simple-looking designs have gone through (and are still going through) multiple iterations. Version 2 on display had a glass-filled nylon core overshot with TPE. Founder, Ty Stuart told us V3 would be out soon made with “top secret sauce”.

You can see these in the video from marker 26:12.

Archethought

Archethought considers itself a data company but relies on information gathered from its big, urban environment IoT sensors. These devices can be put up at music venues, on street corners, in retail shops or clubs to monitor all sorts of things.

3 of Archethought's data capturing and/or relaying devices.
3 of Archethought’s data capturing and/or relaying devices.

There’s a directional wind monitor that gives directional sound data as well as wind info. Another one can pick up radio signals which can do things like count the number of digital signals/devices in a crowd, roughly equating to occupancy. These can be used in concert to triangulate sound locations. Then if you combine that location with some AI, sounds such as a car crash can be recognized and classified, and the authorities can be told to come to an accident scene automatically.

There are many other applications possible like monitoring noise levels, or sending data to digital wrist bands on event-goers. Plus more that haven’t been developed or thought of yet! That’s why Archethought will share whatever data is permissible to be open to the public to developers. The hope is this “Innovation Platform” will be used to come up with new ways to mash the numbers for new applications.

For this interview, check out marker 26:51 in the video above.

Talks and Panels

Maybe it’s because I spend too much time visiting clients in Silicon Valley, but I was surprised at some of the very basic definitions heard in these panels. There were excellent tips for seasoned pros, too! However, often, I would see panelists and moderators taking the time to explain things like manufacturing or development acronyms. It seemed there were a lot more DIY-ers than I’m used to seeing in a tech audience compared with ex-Google or ex-Apple employees. So, if you’re jumping into physical product development for the first time, I’d highly recommend attending next year.

From Cocktail Napkin to Mass Production

The subheading of this talk was “How to Navigate the Design Process, Prototyping, and Prepare for Manufacturing.” Patrick Monahan was the speaker. He’s an Industrial Designer and cofounder at Design Elevation.

Patrick Monahan of Design Elevation teaches all the new-to-product-development makers what to expect during his talk.
Patrick Monahan of Design Elevation teaches all the new-to-product-development makers what to expect during his talk.

His talk was an excellent primer on what those new to product development should expect from the process. Monahan also included a few of what I’d assume are his pet peeves or at least frustrations (because they’re also mine). Here’s an example slide where he advises coming up with measurable (i.e. numerical) targets. Otherwise, you’re working in murky, subjective grey area!

Monahan's slide where he advises startups to come up with NUMBERS to define specs is fantastic. I see failure to do this often and it leads to confusion and frustration!
Monahan’s slide where he advises startups to come up with NUMBERS to define specs is fantastic. I see failure to do this often and it leads to confusion and frustration!

You can see a clip of this talk at 0:30 in the video.

Funding Your Physical Product

The 3 seasoned entrepreneurs on this panel had some great financial tips for other startups. You can listen to them starting at 30:13 in the video at the top of this article.

The "Funding Your Physical Product" panel at Denver Startup Week. From left to right: China Califf of Colorado Lending Source, Brandi Paik of CG Habitats, Hunter Wood of Elevated Seltzer, and Brett Payton of YOCISCO.
The “Funding Your Physical Product” panel at Denver Startup Week. From left to right: China Califf of Colorado Lending Source, Brandi Paik of CG Habitats, Hunter Wood of Elevated Seltzer, and Brett Payton of YOCISCO.

Brandi Paik, the co-founder and VP of CG Habitats, formerly CandyGrind, highly recommened checking out small business organizations like your local SBA. She originally balked at the idea they’d have anything useful to tell her, but in the end, found them extremely helpful. She also found using more than one foreign vendor to produce the same thing pushes all your prices way down. If you always stay with just one vendor, they essentially have a monopoly over your business.

Hunter Wood, founder and CEO of Elevated Seltzer, seconded Paik’s suggestion of using multiple vendors. However, Wood uses this tactic domestically.

Brett Payton, Strategy and Innovation Manager of YOCISCO, wanted all the entrepreneurs to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. By that, he meant often and honest evaluations of your finances and progress. If you think taking a hard look every quarter is often enough, Payton disagrees. He recommends every 60 days, instead. Also, he urged the audience to be ready to pivot and make big changes to your strategy at any time.

Prototyping Vs. Production: When to Make the Leap

Jenney Loper from Zebulon Solutions moderated this other panel for beginner HW entrepreneurs. She thoughtfully made sure the audience didn’t get lost in acronyms.

This talk, called, "Prototyping Vs. Production: When to Make the Leap" happened inside the Denver Central Library.
This talk, called, “Prototyping Vs. Production: When to Make the Leap” happened inside the Denver Central Library.

The other HW development pros represented different potential links in a chain. To watch some clips from this panel, you can start the video at 1:51.

Plastic Prototyping

Jeffrey Jakubowski from iFuzion does a lot in the prototyping stage with plastics. There were questions to the panel about lead times and the level of devastation if changes needed to be made. Jakubowski said most 3D printed parts he creates can be ready in under a week, and changes at this stage are not too costly or difficult. Clearly, if you’re going to make mistakes (you will) or changes at any point (I hope you will), this is the stage where you want most of that to happen.

Production Plastics

Matt Saunders from PTA Plastics spoke on plastics when they get to production. At this point, changes can be very expensive. First shots can take 5-10 weeks on average to get, plus tooling might cost anywhere between $15,000 and $300,000. If you need to make a second mold (or heaven forbid more than that), you might financially sink yourself! He wanted the crowd to be especially aware of the fact that what geometries you can make with 3D printing isn’t always possible to get out of a mold. Saunders sees this mistake often.

Electronics Prototyping

Stuart McKeel from Slingshot Assembly shared insight on electronics prototyping. At his company, they might only be making a handful of boards and a large number of specific components wouldn’t likely be purchased yet. So, at this stage, a change can be more easily made without too much wasted cash or time.

Production Electronics

Covering the production end of electronics was Stan Haag of Premier Manufacturing. At this part, things like long-lead-time parts and stencils, are already ordered, programs have already started and any changes will be very painful. What you may consider a minor tweak at this point often requires starting over from the beginning.

Contract Manufacturing

Chuck Hodges from Zebulon Solutions works on the side of domestic and off-shore electronic contract manufacturing. He had a valuable caution for the crowd. Hardware entrepreneurs often neglect to account for how much design churn can drive the pricetag up once you get to the stage of working with foreign manufacturers. Lead times are greater at this stage and you’re involving a lot more engineering time every time a change is made. If your design isn’t very mature, going straight to Asian manufacturers can be a costly decision (not to mention a frustrating one).

How “DIY” Can F*&^ Up Your Product

This panel was a fun one to attend. However, it was admittedly at times painful to hear about some of these fails. The speakers shared anecdotes from their experience working with DIY-ers turned HW entrepreneurs. You can watch clips of these 3 starting at 31:48 in the video embedded above.

For the "How 'DIY' Can F*&^ Up Your Product" panel, we had (from left to right):  Jenney Loper of Zebulon Solutions, Schuyler Livingston of Link Product Development, and Dave Eyvazzadeh of VOZ Patents.
For the “How ‘DIY’ Can F*&^ Up Your Product” panel, we had (from left to right): Jenney Loper of Zebulon Solutions, Schuyler Livingston of Link Product Development, and Dave Eyvazzadeh of VOZ Patents.

Some of the same lessons kept surfacing from their tales. For one thing, if you’re working on a hardware concept, be sure to involve experts early and often. The mistakes you might otherwise make can be devastating! Also, be sure to get feedback from people who don’t love you. “No one will tell you your baby is ugly.” If your friends and family think your idea is great that means nothing. Solicit feedback from strangers in your target market, and then make changes!

Getting Attached to a Lousy Design

Schuyler Livingston of Link Product Development told us what happens when DIY-ers make that above mistake of only asking beloved family and friends what they think of their HW baby. They’ll take that design they’re in love with to Livingston and ask him to recreate their idea without changing a thing. This can lead to clinging to a design that is undesirable when compared to alternatives. Or perhaps, the greater application doesn’t have market feasibility to begin with. Then, Livingston and his team have to perform the difficult task of delivering the tough love these entrepreneurs didn’t get from their friends — or even other design firms!

Getting Hosed by Your Contract Manufacturers

Jenney Loper of Zebulon Solutions told us a sad story about a client of hers signing a contract with a manufacturer without having the document vetted by a pro. This client ended up losing all their tools because they signed away the ownership of them. Then, they almost made a similar mistake a second time! Luckily, at that point, Loper was there to step in an make some expert suggestions.

Unwittingly Giving Up Your Right to Seek a Patent

Dave Eyvazzadeh of VOZ Patents shared a story about a prospective client who wanted to get protection for his gizmo by beginning the patent application process. The maker pulled out a YouTube video of his device to explain the concept. That’s when Eyvazzadeh saw the date stamp and realized it was too late; this guy’s IP was actually part of the public domain now. Eyvazzadeh, a patent agent, explained that your first public disclosure starts a clock. Then, if you don’t file an application within 12 months, you forfeit your “patentable rights”. Ouch!

Pitch Competition

Because of aforementioned schedule conflicts, I didn’t get to watch the entire competition TiE Denver was hosting. However, I did happen to see the presentation by the company that won.

TiE Denver

TiE Denver was the organization sponsoring this particular battle, which featured a physical product. Denver is just one of the many chapter hosts of TiE (“The Indus Entrepreneurs”). You can also find these organizations supporting entrepreneurship around the globe, from Atlanta to Frankfurt to Bangalore.

The Winner: Vaporox

Vaporox is building a machine proven to speed the healing of diabetic foot ulcers. Regular treatments in their vapor bath medical device not only helps these types of wounds heal faster — they also increase the chances of these ulcers healing fully. Oftentimes, they don’t. These painful and debilitating effects of diabetes surely deserve some new tech developed to treat them. That said, woah, were the graphic images of these sores difficult to watch. Here’s an image of the machine instead:

Vaporox's machine was vaping-away at the Physical Product Showcase at Denver Startup Week.
Vaporox’s machine was vaping-away at the Physical Product Showcase at Denver Startup Week.

Denver Startup Week 2020 Slated for September 14-18

If you’re interested in attending next year, you can pencil September 14th-18th, 2020 into your calendar now. This is one conference I definitely intend to return to in the future!

Author

Erin is a digital nomad and directs optical engineering and publishing at Spire Starter LLC: www.SpireStarter.com Her academic background is in applied physics and she used to work for The Man designing optics for indoor lighting, automotive headlamps and tail lights (Corvette, Escalade, Chevrolet Silverado, etc.), optical sensors, and sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads. On the side, Erin is an artist, Christian sci-fi writer, and lover of beer, bourbon, and bourbon-infused beer.