How the Alpha Lab Gear Hardware Cup, now 4 years old, found roots in Pittsburgh

The first regional competition is Tuesday at Google.

Winners of the 2017 Hardware Cup pose with their checks.

Winners of the 2017 Hardware Cup pose with their checks.

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, Feb. 5

From sensors that track home energy use to a handheld virtual reality camera to a fitness tracker that turns Kegels into a game — the previous winners of the Alpha Lab Gear Hardware Cup show that not one type of product impresses the judges most.

Now in its fourth year, the Pittsburgh-based competition continues to grow and expand as one of the few focused solely on companies with a physical product. This year’s contest included six regional and — for the second year — international competitions determining who would advance to the finals for a chance to win a $50,000 investment. While the finals have always been in Pittsburgh, new this year is the championship on April 18 will coincide with the IEEE N3XT Frontiers Conference.

Startups from Israel, Japan and South Korea will all compete this year, too, and a few more international locations are in the works, said Leah Simoncelli, Hardware Cup coordinator. “It’s really exciting and useful to meet a whole new network.”

The Hardware Cup — which yes, does give out an actual cup trophy — all started with a then-new Alpha Lab Gear. The staff was hearing over and over from investors that “hardware is hard,” she said.

Investors would say that they don’t work with hardware companies because it takes too long, is difficult to scale up, and the business models are too hard, said Chris Millard, former Alpha Lab Gear program manager.

“That was the opposite of what we were seeing,” and we wanted to change their minds, he said. While it can be more expensive and time consuming, it’s also harder to fake a hardware company because someone has to use the product.

So Millard and Ilana Diamond, managing director of AlphaLab Gear, launched the first Hardware Cup in 2015.

The idea was to go to a few cities and give startups a stage to share their work with investors and a crowd, Simoncelli said. It required a lot of logistics to go from city to city, but with a lean startup approach, it worked, Millard said.

“And it’s built to be a win-win-win,” Simoncelli said. The investors and audience see what’s new, and the companies have the chance to be in front of investors and potential partners.

Josh McElhattan, managing director of Startbot, a venture capital firm focused on robotics, has been involved with the Hardware Cup from the start and is a judge for the contest.

The Hardware Cup started at a time when there weren’t a lot of investors in hardware, and there still aren’t, he said. McElhattan said he knows most of the robotics companies in Pittsburgh, but the Hardware Cup helps fill the gap when it comes to connections with robotics startups in other parts of the country.

And the number of robotics startups applying to the contest continues to grow, especially in applications from Pittsburgh, Simoncelli said.

2018 Mid-Atlantic Regional Hardware Cup

These six semi-finalists will compete during the first regional contest for the year, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Google’s Larimer offices. The winner moves on to the finals. Of the six, three are from Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh companies

  • EXG Wearable Devices makes customizable a headset/earbuds to operate smart home devices and other tools with eye movements and facial gestures.
  • Spand-Ice makes products designed for pain relief for pregnant women and new mothers.
  • Velocity Robotics makes connected power tools to improve productivity in construction.

Outside Pittsburgh

  • Augean Robotics (Phoenixville, Pa.) makes a robotic work cart called Burro which follows people as they work.
  • Bounce Imaging (Buffalo, NY) makes 360/VR cameras for first responders to throw into spaces too dangerous for humans. Video is then sent back via smartphone.
  • Circalux (Philadelphia, Pa.) makes night lights for caregivers and health care staff to minimize sleep-disruptive light.

Watch a live pitch competition at Google

Listen in as six hardware startups pitch to local investors for a chance to get $3,000 cash. Before the pitch competition, hear from serial entrepreneurs, industry experts, and seasoned investors in a series of flash talks.

Where:Google at 6425 Penn Ave. (Larimer)

When:February 6, 2018 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

How much:Free (advance registration required)

A comment from Simoncelli was corrected to say robotics applications are increasing from the Pittsburgh region.