As Software Eats World, Three Startups Show Hardware Still Haute

The three finalists in the hardware category of Techvibes Canadian Startup Awards have a few things in common: each of them raised millions of dollars in venture capital in 2016 and each of them is creating new markets for products that didn’t exist until recently.

And the products themselves show just how diverse the hardware category is.

Thalmic Labs makes an armband that allows user to control digital devices with gestures; Clearpath is building robots for industry and scientific research; and ecobee makes wifi-enabled thermostats.

Ecobee

A lot has changed since ecobee launched the world’s first wifi-connected thermostat in 2009. The smart home market has heated up and some of the world’s biggest tech companies have gotten into the game.

“Consumer demand for smart technologies, like ecobee, is growing every day. It’s incredible to see the category’s growth since the company started in 2007,” says Stuart Lombard, the founder and CEO of ecobee. “In fact, we’re at the beginning of a new growth wave in consumer IoT and the smart thermostat market is currently seeing its strongest momentum ever, according to multiple studies.”

His company is seeing strong momentum as well, with 100 per cent growth year-over-year in 2016.

In October, the company launched the ecobee3 lite, a smart thermostat that’s priced around $80 less than other smart thermostats – including those made by its main competitors.

The launch came less than two months after ecobee raised a $35-million investment round led by the Amazon Alexa Fund.

“The investments enable ecobee to drive significant operational improvements, profitable growth and future product innovations for our customers,” Lombard says. “More than anything, we see this as a strong vote of confidence in our market-leading products and the growth potential of the connected home market.”

Clearpath

For Clearpath, 2016 brought a corporate reorganization. It now has two divisions, OTTO Motors, which makes, autonomous vehicles for industry and Clearpath Robotics, which makes unmanned vehicles for researchers.

Matt Rendall, the company’s cofounder and CEO, says the expansion came naturally.

“One of our first customers, GE, inspired us to develop a heavy-load vehicle that could be used for commercial, industrial material transport for their facility. Through iteration, the solution became what is known today as the OTTO self-driving vehicle,” he says. “Because the need and the market for OTTO was very different from our other robotic platforms, we branched the industrial product line into its own division, called OTTO Motors.”

Those industrial robots are now being used by manufactures including John Deere, Toyota and Caterpillar.

In October, Clearpath raised a $30-million Series B investment round.

“Our Series B provided us with the ability invest in our team and product roadmap, whereas our Series A in 2015 was used to invest in R&D initiatives to build out our technology and industrial products,” Rendall says.

Clearpath Wins Robotics Award for Jackal, an Unmanned Ground Vehicle

Since raising the money, the company has hired almost 50 people, bringing its employee headcount to 200. It plans to hire another 100 people this year.

Thalmic Labs

For Stephen Lake, the founder and CEO of Thalmic Labs, 2016 was a busy year.

“Building Thalmic Labs has been the most challenging and rewarding thing we’ve ever done. The last year has been no exception. Between tripling in size, opening up our new office in San Francisco and raising the Series B funding round, it’s been a rollercoaster,” he says.

That Series B, announced in September, brought $120 million in new investment into the company.

“We have a multi-year roadmap of where we want our products to go, and know the gaps in available technologies needed to make those products possible,” Lake says. “This financing is letting us invest not only in our next upcoming product, but also in deep research and development efforts that span multiple years and whose fruits will not be seen for several years.”

2016 also saw Thalmic open a new office in San Francisco.

“We felt being closely connected to the Silicon Valley ecosystem was important to us, especially for our marketing and partner teams,” he says. “Tara Kriese, who we hired in September as our CMO, is leading the marketing team from that office. “

Before joining Thalmic, Kriese led marketing for the launch of Samsung’s VR products in North America.

“Tara is an expert in emerging product categories and her experience in that area will be critical for the next stage of our growth,” Lake says.

Thalmic also expanded its presence in the Waterloo Region, where it was founded and continues to be based, opening a new manufacturing facility and hiring almost 100 people.

“There’s an impressive level of skilled labour here that we’ve been able to draw upon. Opening our manufacturing facility here allows us to take advantage of that same talent and expertise,” lLake says. “Beyond talent, there are a lot of advantages to keeping our manufacturing facility close. In particular, the ability to make future products right down the street is critical as it allows us to maintain a level of control that would be impossible if we had the space elsewhere.”

He says the facility will also allow Thalmic to innovate on the way it makes products.

Going forward, Thalmic has big plans.

“So much of the progress that has taken place in the wearable technology industry so far has been trying out different form factors – simply finding new locations on the human body to place a miniaturized computer,” he says. “In the next year, we’ll continue our pursuit of creating products in entirely new categories that empower the wearer to accomplish more – innovating new technologies for humans instead of applying innovation to humans.”

Choose Your Favourite

Which of these deserving young companies deserve to win in the Enterprise Transformation category? Make sure you vote for your favourites before Feb. 19 at midnight to have your say in which startups should win in their respective categories.

The winners will be announced at a live gala on March 2nd at Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto.

In Enterprise Transformation Category, Three Venerable Titans Showcase Ability to Adapt

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