Crowd-funding: a new way to finance high tech?

October 08, 2012

Bernard Cole-October 08, 2012

Computer science grad student Jon Moeller is in the midst of an online Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to get financing for an idea originally developed as the part of an open-source hardware development project he participated in as part of his studies at Texas A&M.

And he is not alone. More engineering students, hobbyists and even a few high tech companies are starting to use the same means to finance promising ideas in the very earliest stages of development, much before they could get serious venture capital funding interest.

A graduate student in the Computer Science program at Texas A&M University, Moeller is about halfway through a Kickstarter campaign  to raise the $30,000 funding he needs to get started in developing a board he can sell to hobbyists.

He said it started as a project at the university to design an Arduino-pin-compatible board for use in an engineering laboratory class at MIT funded by Cypress Semiconductor. The aim was to build a replacement for the 8051 based board used previously with a 40 pin 8051 drop-in-replacement MCU using an 8051-based PSoc.

His initial exposure to the PSoC was through a class project, where he developed the second iteration of a multitouch system called Scanning FTIR. The first iteration was done on Arduino, and the sample rate was extremely low, due to the limitations of UART communication and a slow ADC on Arduino.

“On the second iteration, the PSoC platform allowed us to improve the response time by a factor of 60, and sold me on the platform and the IDE, “ said Moeller, “which allowed us to implement a USB interface with minimal overhead.” The Scanning FTIR project evolved into ZeroTouch, a project done at the university’s Interface Ecology Lab.

During the course of the project (which uses PSoC 5), the graduate students involved – including -developed a close relationship with the Cypress University Alliance. Patrick Kane, the program coordinator, approached Moeller and the others involved, including , about creating some open-source hardware development platforms for PSoC in the MIT engineering lab course.

“The idea was to use a PSoC 5 with an 8051 emulator to enable students to learn basic MCU skills (assembly, memory I/O, etc) on a platform the instructors are familiar with, “ he said, “while also enabling them to harness the full functionality of the PSoC platform for their final projects.”

The Arduino-compatible version was designed as a low-cost hobbyist platform, for people experienced with Arduino to step up to a much more powerful MCU without the steep learning curve that is usually incurred with the shift to a 32-bit platform.

“After completing the development of the boards, I spun off a company, to sell the boards to hobbyists and to try and create a community around the platform,” said Moeller, “ and I recently launched a Kickstarter project and a Web site http://freesoc.net/ to attract interest for the boards, and to raise funding for the first big round of manufacturing. Called FreeSoc, the board uses a Cortex M3-based CY8C5568 PSoC (Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Jon Moeller is looking for crowd-funding to finance the building of his PSoC-based Arduino-compatible FreeSoc for the hobbyist market.

In addition to the Arduino-compatible pinout, the board he is working on has 5 I/O ports broken out into 5x2 headers, allowing for interchangeable modules to be plugged into the system to add functionality. Modules currently in development include a 9-axis IMU, 96kHz ADC/DAC, LCD breakout, and more.

Mueller is not alone. Many EE and CS graduate students – and hobbyists (who I term “knowledge domain enthusiasts” who have a fascination with a particular subject and are not “expert” enough to know that what they are designing is impractical) are making use of web-based crowd-funding services such as Kickstarter to finance efforts to take their projects to the next level: a design that will actually make money.

A variety of small aerospace companies, such as HyperV Technologies and consumer oriented startups such as Smart Things are using the crowd-funding option. But so far, only few high tech companies, among them Cypress and Adapteva , have paid any attention at all to the potential of crowd-funding..

Adapteva, for example, has just initiated the Kickstarter-funded Parallella project  to build an open and affordable $99 credit card-sized supercomputing platform that offers a 50x performance boost over existing open hardware platforms like Raspberry Pi. It is based on Adapteva’s 16-core and 64-core Epiphany microprocessor chips.

I have searched company web sites and the various online crowd-sourcing services and I have yet to find extensive interest in this approach to project funding from electronics and embedded systems design firms. Nor among professional EEs and embedded developers.

But university computer science and engineering students and quite a few hobbyists are jumping at the opportunity crowd-funding represents. No doubt it is because they are not “expert” enough nor have enough business experience to know that it is impractical. On Kickstarter alone, some very interesting projects have been initiated, including:

TinyDuino  - a completely Arduino compatible platform smaller than the size of a quarter.

The MiniBloq graphical programming environment for the Arduino platform

Teensy 3.0, a 32-bit ARM Corrtex-M4 board for development on the Arduino in C or C++..

What do you think about this trend? Are you involved in such efforts? Is your company? Or your university? Let me know about what you are doing, designing and thinking about.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also a partner in TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call 928-525-9087 or send an email to bccole@acm.org

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