LightUp: the next stage

Fri, 05/17/2013

LightUp, the first hardware venture developed in the TLTL, is set to make its public debut this week. On Thursday, the company launched an initial fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding hub. Saturday and Sunday the second-generation prototypes of the modular circuit-design kit will be on display at Maker Faire Bay Area in San Mateo, the annual festival of all-things-DIY.

LightUp's principals, Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry, connected through the TLT Lab in 2012. Lab director Paulo Blikstein noted the similarities between the two students' projects and suggested they collaborate on a low-cost kit to simplify the way children create electronic projects -- without the hassle of breadboards, soldering, and wires. Blikstein had been unhappy with the ways children were being exposed to electronics and his two students shared the same feeling. After some successful prototypes and conference presentations, the three spent the past nine months designing the kit.

Chan and Pondicherry recently returned from a three-month residency in a hardware-development accelerator in Shenzhen, the electronics manufacturing hub of China. The HAXLR8R program allowed Chan and Pondicherry to connect face-to-face with component vendors, manufacturing companies and experts in product development. "It really does help to be in the same time zone," said Chan. "The program we were in has a lot of mentors. And some of them were able to come and stay with us a couple of days or a week. And that made a big difference. These were people who had so many skills that we didn't have."

They found Shenzhen to be a one-stop destination for both component sourcing and potential manufacturing partners. "Picture the biggest mall in California just filled with nothing but electronic components," said Pondicherry. "And there are ten of those on the same street."

In addition to networking, the pair used the time in China to make refinements that would be necessary before the kits could be put into production. The current iteration is still based on magnetic connectors, which allow students to build circuits without wires, alligator clips, breadboards or soldering. But the previous handmade copper-clad connectors are gone, replaced by a design that's better-suited to the manufacturing process.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward for LightUp is the development of an Android app that allows users to point a phone at the assembled kit and see where the current is flowing. No other modular circuit kit has a comparable visualization aid.

This week, LightUp also participated in the Hardware Innovation Workshop, produced by the Maker Faire's parent organization. Chan and Pondicherry won the pitch-your-prototype competition and LightUp was voted the "most interesting and innovative product idea."

The donations raised by the Kickstarter campaign will determine the initial small-scale production run for the kits. Blikstein, Chan and Pondicherry will also be consulting with local teachers on further refinements that will make the kits ready for classroom use. While Blikstein does not have a stake in the new venture, he will continue to be involved in the research and design of the toolkit.

Saturday and Sunday, LightUp will be at booth 307 of the Expo Hall at the San Mateo County Event Center, along with seven other hardware start-ups from the HAXLR8R program. Sunday afternoon at 1:15 Chan and Pondicherry will give a 15-minute demo of LightUp on the Make: Electronics Stage.