Hardware startups present a unique mix of challenges: dealing with manufacturing partners; working to a timeline with domino-like impact; mastering a scalable prototype. Highway1 is a startup accelerator that exists to help early stage companies address these particular hardware complexities. In a four-month program, startup founders gain exclusive access to mentors, consultants and partners, enlightening them on the manufacturing process and guiding them through the web of taking their product from prototype to market.
And, in a time when there’s more discussion than ever about the role of women in tech and the overall lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, Highway1 boasts an impressive number of female founders—24 female founders out of 67 startups to date. Girls in Tech spoke with a few female founders from Highway1’s program to see how it helped them catapult their product. Meet the ladies of Highway1.
Innovating for the modern mom
“The experience of trying to be at work while pumping is hard. Trying to lean in at work while still being connected at home, it proved to be a challenge.” Cara Delzer said, reflecting on her experience pumping for her firstborn, a challenge mothers around the globe can attest to.
Cara is CEO of Moxxly, a startup ignited from three female founders who are determined to change the pumping experience for women everywhere. Moxxly’s first product: a high performing breast pump system that enables women to pump anywhere, even with their shirts on, while receiving real-time data about breastmilk supply.
Moxxly finished the program at Highway1 in December 2014. Delzer found it particularly rewarding to have access to a vibrant network of entrepreneurs, a support system that can be difficult to find. “It’s not so easy to find other hardware entrepreneurs. That alone was valuable to us.”
The manufacturing experience was also critical. “We appreciated demystifying the manufacturing experience at such an early stage,” Delzer said. “It’s one thing to design a prototype. It’s another thing to make something that can be manufactured thousands and thousands of times reliably.”
Delzer is currently fundraising—while pregnant! Good news: her experience so far is refreshingly drama-free. While she believes it has a lot to do with being a female founder who is making a product for women (she pointed out that having a baby while working for a company that makes a breast pump was pretty “on brand”) she was also approached the concept in a very practical light.
“I’m not the first founder to have a baby at home,” she said. “It’s part of fundraising when you’re working with companies with founders in their 20s and 30s.”
Reimagining health monitoring, starting with the artery
“We’re creating a sensor that tracks every little movement of the artery,” said Catherine Liao, co-founder and CEO of Blumio. “It’s extremely complex.”
Blumio is on a mission to improve people’s health through better management of vitals. They’re starting with a sensor that can continuously monitor blood pressure, allowing for real-time, accurate measurements. A comparable product does not exist today.
Since Blumio is truly tech for healthcare, the two-founder team did consider a healthcare accelerator versus a general hardware accelerator. But, by week two of Highway1’s program, Liao noticed the accelerator aspect. “Sometimes you need arbitrary deadlines to get moving,” she said. “It lights a fire under your butt.”
For example, at the end of every program, Highway1 holds a demo day where every startup will pitch. “It was an immediate target to work towards,” said Liao. “I’m now better prepared to pitch in public and in much larger settings.” In fact, right off the bat, Liao was working on her pitch with the Highway1 team. It forced her to become much more succinct in her messaging.
Making clean air accessible to every home
Like so many remarkable ideas, Molekule was invented out of a personal need: to breathe clean, pure air at home. Jaya Rao, Molekule’s COO, says her father, who has an extensive background in solar technology, created the original system decades ago to address her brother’s severe asthma. Throughout the years, her father iterated continuously. Jaya eventually joined forces with her father and brother to bring Molekule to the consumer market. They completed the Highway1 program in 2015 and started taking orders last week.
Molekule is not a filter. It works to actually break down indoor air pollutants, such as mold, viruses, bacteria, and gaseous chemicals.
“We had the technology, but it was still in a lab setting,” Rao said. “It hadn’t been moved on to get ready for consumers. We needed to know how to take something so scientific and get it ready for someone’s home.”
Rao and her team turned to Highway1 to help give structure to their vision. “We knew the challenges going in,” she said. “But we didn’t have the resources to tackle them on our own.”
An app for customizable, wearable tech
XO is an app-connected fashion brand. Customers can use the XO App to customize their look. The app is getting attention from some major brands and artists—in fact, Lady Gaga just formally signed on as an advisor in May.
“Highway 1 has some of the most diversely skilled and talented staff I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” said Nancy Tilbury, co-founder and Executive Creative Director at XO App. “The collaboration with Highway1 has set our company’s product development on an excellent path, we are ready to scale and look forward to seeing fashion fans wearing XO all around the globe.”
Tilbury’s advice for other early stage entrepreneurs considering an accelerator? “Do your homework, accelerators are a big commitment. Get everything lined up so you can go MIA from all friends and family and invest everything and every second to get the best out of the program.”
Watch for the fall class of 2016
Applications are currently in review for the fall class, which kicks off in August. You can sign up on Highway1 to receive updates about the Spring 2017 call for applications.
If you’re considering applying, see what Brady Forrest, Vice President of Highway1, says they look for in startup teams:
“We are betting on the team and the product, so those are the two things we look at the closest. We look for founders that have known each other for a long time or have worked on projects together previously, and are passionate and tenacious,” he said.
“We also look for diverse founders, as diverse teams are stronger, and are often able to tackle problems successfully because they bring multiple perspectives. The founders also must have the skills necessary to deliver on their idea. On the product side, we look for a product with a sizeable market, that has been validated or tested by users.”