Bolt Emerges with $3.5M Fund to Support Hardware Startups in Boston

If hardware is the new black, then Bolt is the new “accelerator.”

Actually, Bolt doesn’t much like the term. Instead, it fancies itself a “toolkit” for hardware startups. But the accelerator label gets some mileage, because Bolt has landed in Boston to nurture young companies and build a new business—and, perhaps, a new industry—around connected devices and other types of hardware products.

Here’s how the annual program will work. Each startup will get up to $50,000 in cash, in exchange for 5 to 15 percent of common stock. The mentorship program will last six months—about double the length of most tech accelerators—and the first group of about 10 to 15 startups will enter the inaugural session in May. Participants will get the standard perks: help with marketing, networking, fundraising, and commercializing products, but all tailored to hardware.

To support itself, Bolt has closed just over $3.5 million in financing from corporate and strategic investors Logitech, Autodesk, and Grishin Robotics, as well as angel investors including Semyon Dukach, Mick Mountz, Eran Egozy, Brad Feld, and Bruce Sachs. A regulatory filing suggests Bolt is planning to raise a little less than $5 million in total, which should let it operate for a couple of years.

Bolt has secured a 9,000-square-foot space near Downtown Crossing. Its most impressive feature is probably its full-service shop for machining and prototyping hardware—this is a big deal and can be hard to find elsewhere. It will also have a small staff of engineers and industrial designers and will provide discounted parts and services through partners.

Indeed, Bolt has a good shot to become “the premier hardware accelerator in the world,” says Dukach, the angel investor and startup guru. There will be plenty of competition in the U.S. and abroad, starting with Lemnos Labs, TechShop, and HAXLR8R (that last one makes my head hurt just looking at it).

Having a guy named Einstein running things probably won’t hurt. That would be Ben Einstein (left), an up-and-coming entrepreneur with a penchant for designing and building physical things. (Event plug: Einstein is speaking at Xconomy’s fifth annual Mobile Madness conference on March 19 at Microsoft NERD in Cambridge, MA.)

Bolt, he says, will help very early stage hardware companies go from a napkin sketch to design and development to financing, manufacturing, and commercialization. One sign of how accelerators are evolving: Bolt expects its graduates to seek money in a bunch of different ways. Some will raise a traditional seed or Series A venture round, while others will explore crowdfunding (and all its perils), licensing, and other options to support getting products onto shelves.

Hype alert: The fact that the economics of hardware companies is looking much more attractive to investors now, as compared to five or 10 years ago, means the field will see a big influx of both contenders and pretenders. So having the right team in place will be very important.

To that end, Einstein is joined by partners Axel Bichara, formerly of Atlas Venture, and Scott Miller, formerly of iRobot (now CEO of Dragon Innovation). Together, they’ll work like this: Einstein brings product design and development chops; Bichara brings operations and capital expertise; and Miller brings years of manufacturing experience, particularly in Asia.

So what kinds of startups are we talking about here? Einstein cites buzzwords like “connected devices” and “Internet of things,” but he knows they’re just that—buzzwords. It will be up to the entrepreneurs and their mentors to carve out real products for real market needs. The market sectors could be quite broad: consumer tech, health sensors and apps (e.g., quantified self), gaming, education, and robotics.

Bolt companies will tend to be based around “simple pieces of hardware plus a cell or Internet connection” so that the hardware (and its users) can “connect to an app or service,” Einstein says.

When I spoke with Einstein earlier this month, he said he had looked at about 170 companies already, and about 35 to 40 percent were from New England. But he says his team is looking for “the best companies from anywhere.” The official call for applications is today, and the deadline will be in April.

The timing seems promising to make a go of building a more unified hardware cluster in Boston. Accelerators are increasingly specializing by field (see LearnLaunchX in education), and at least one prominent techie, Brian Chemel of Digital Lumens, says Boston hardware startups need an identity. Meanwhile, the so-called maker movement is still in need of tools, services, and marketplaces to support its innovators.

Einstein, for his part, moved to Boston from western Massachusetts about a year ago. His design and development experience includes work at firms such as Brainstream Design and Page Product Design. He had thought about setting up Bolt in other cities, including New York, Boulder, and San Francisco, but settled on Boston because of the talent, universities, industry expertise, and investor community. MIT and other area schools, he says, “pump out so many people interested in physical things.”

He fits that description pretty well himself. “I’m happiest in front of a faceful of metal chips” from a milling machine, he says. “My calling in life is to build things.”

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