Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Getting a Closer Look

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Jeff Stewart co-founder and VP of Engineering over at Exo Labs who is here with me to talk about his first Kickstarter, The Focus Microscope Camera.  Thank you for joining me today!

Glad to be here... we really appreciate the opportunity to talk about our Kickstarter campaign.

Why don’t you describe what your project is all about?

We have built and are currently selling the first camera that streams images directly to an iPad through the dock connector.  We can apply different lens assemblies onto the camera and our first lens is for interfacing with microscopes... and is targeted at the K-12 science classroom.  Because we are a bunch of engineers, we need to learn insights from teachers and students in order to make our products easy to use and ultimately very useful for teachers.

We are raising money to create a co-development program with schools so that we can give away 40 of our devices to specific types of classrooms and learning environments with the expectation that they will be a beta platform for us to try out new features and really learn what makes a good product for the classroom.  The total amount raised will also cover the expense of running the program because it is going to take a ton of time and effort to wrangle all of the information into a usable format for our engineering team.

How does your system compare to stand alone, and far cheaper, product like the Amoeba Dual Purpose digital microscope?  $400 is quite expensive for a camera attachment to a $400 device!

All of the other cameras on the market today share their images either via WiFi or via a USB cable.  Our product is designed specifically for the 30-pin dock connector of iOS devices in mind and we are going after the massive influx of iPads into classrooms.  Our device is very cool from a hardware perspective, but I think that ultimately what we have going for us is the experience of conducting microscopy with a touch interface... it is really cool, and we have found it’s very engaging for students and teachers.  

We also chose not to use a WiFi connection to the iPad because we wanted to keep that connection available for doing AirPlay via AppleTV or other cool super secret features on our roadmap that will require the WiFi connection to be available.  Also, our device connects to the microscopes that you already HAVE... it just replaces the eyepiece, so schools get to connect existing assets together. We are the glue between the microscope and the iPad.

I heard physical lab spaces at schools were rapidly shrinking due to budget cuts and more digital methods of teaching like virtual microscopy.  How future proof is your product?  How does it fit into the new changing teaching environments?

Surprisingly, with the massive push for STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) education, there seems to be quite a market for this.  I don’t think that the hands-on experience of science is ever going away. It’s like reading a book about swimming, It just isnt’ the same as doing it.  If educators want to switch to an all online model like the virtual microscope, then we can’t really do much about that.  What we can do is take an anachronistic experience of looking through the eyepiece of a microscope and marry that to the awesome power of an iPad.  Staying true to the roots of mobile and building sharing into the DNA of our products will I think prove compelling enough for educators to remain on with the physical experience of the science classroom. I think that as a platform, iOS seems like a pretty good contender for being around for some time. I think from a changing environment standpoint, our products are examples of the new way of doing things. We are bringing a new perspective to the educational technology market, and ultimately I think we will be able to consistently roll out products that backfill the vacuum left by the transition of schools from PCs to iPads. There may be lots of changes going on in education, but I can assure you that as a nimble company, we can react faster.  

What prompted the creation of the Focus?  

My co-founder and I had both recently left a startup that was creating implantable medical devices for the management of epilepsy.  We were excited to start our own company and try out the Wild West of the Startup adventure.  We wanted to do something that made a dent in the universe, like in medical devices, but that didn’t take five years to see if it works, like in medical devices.  So we kicked around a bunch of ideas, but kept coming around to the iPad/iPhone as the platform and something to do with imaging.  

About then Apple released their first number of total iPads sold into schools and it was astonishing... I think it was something like 5 million total.  Mike and I both have small kids, so thinking about trying to make the education experience a little bit better really resonated with us, and we are both science nerds, so we landed on creating a new microscopy experience that was consistent with the technology that the students had in their pockets, not a holdover from the 1700s.

Why bring it to Kickstarter?  Aren’t there educational companies you could have sold this to?

We aren’t using Kickstarter to fund the development of the device, only create a testbed for furthering our understanding and insights of the education market, and of the classroom.  We are Angel funded right now, so this is a great way to raise awareness of our product and raise money to get this program in place.  There may be companies interested in the product, but we think that we can be a competitor in this market

What is your long term goal for the Focus and Exo Labs?  Will I be seeing you guys in labs far and wide?  

We hope you will be seeing us all over the place.  We have been getting traction into research institutions, and are finding that there is a market outside of K-12 for these products.  Just recently we had a cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center buy one of our products to connect to her fluorescence microscope.  We didn’t think that we would be able to compete in that market, but it turns out that our system is so incredibly simple to use, that convenience was the most important factor influencing the decision.  She no longer needs to call a lab tech to set up the camera in order to capture some images of her current work.  For publishing, she will still use the crazy expensive imaging systems that they have at the Center, but for her day to day, our device and her iPad makes it a no-brainer.

How well received has your project been?  As a former JPL employee I could see folks like that using a product like this during their meetings and open houses so the potential is definitely there.

Our project has been really well received.  We were recently at the National Science Teacher’s Association(NSTA) conference in San Antonio, Texas and had MANY people say to us that they had never seen anything like it before and that we completely blew their mind.  One teacher told me that she had been all over the conference to all the booths and our product was by far the most innovative.  Every exhibitor essentially was trying some hacky way of getting iPads somehow integrated into their booth. . some of them were really bad.  Ours was built AROUND the iPad as the platform, so there was no hand waving needed to show how we integrated with iPads. The demo took about 10 seconds from “hello” to “wow”.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

I have been following Kickstarter since it’s inception.  As a hardware engineer, I have been really interested in the technology products and the shift from the ‘fund my development’ to ‘fund my production’ model.  I think that there were some pretty spectacular crash-and-burns early on, and some pretty amazing success stories.  I think we had hoped that we would be breaking records set by Pebble by Day 2, but we are happy with the progress we have been making and are really excited to get past the finish line and get our program setup.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

This is an area that we are ramping up in as we speak.  Expect to see more videos of things that we are capturing with the device, some interviews with the founders and stories from the classrooms of our initial customers.  We are getting great feedback from the field right now and will be sharing that out in order to get over the middle slog of the campaign.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

Yes to all?  Our core market is pretty active on Facebook and we have been getting traction there.  I had an interaction this morning with a guy on Twitter that has now become a backer and is evangelizing the product and the campaign through his network.  We are adding videos to our Youtube channel and we have Adwords running, but not specifically for our Kickstarter.  We have been contacting bloggers, technology journalists to try and get that big TechCrunch bump, but haven’t landed any white whales like that yet. Have any suggestions?

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Spend the time to work through what your story is and create a spreadsheet that shows your rewards, your costs, shipping fees, kickstarter’s cut... everything.  You will be surprised at how fast you can spend all of your money on rewards.  The whole point is not to go broke, or to make unique t-shirts for a thousand people... I guess unless you are starting a Kickstarter to create a t-shirt.  Also, make sure that you have a plan on what to do when (maybe yours won’t) the campaign slows down in the middle.  Start connecting to connectors well in advance of your campaign and get a snazzy video together.  And do something like launch a telescope into space. The ARKYD Kickstarter just launched today and they are at $200K... that is awesome.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

We want to inspire the next generation of scientists and we want you to help us do that.  Follow us on Twitter at @ExoLabs and find us on Facebook.  Let your friends and family know about us and tell your child’s science teacher what we are doing.  

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

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