How This CEO Empowers Innovators to Build Gadgets Faster

Technology has the ability to help the human condition. The right people with the right tools can do just that.

One theory of development places a premium on the idea of walled gardens where companies maintain tight controls over design, features and functionality. And while this may be a successful tool in the short term, it can narrow the path on the road to innovation and fails to address real needs or realize full potential.

For those who take this view, open-source software and hardware are a preferred solution, given their ability to tap into the ideas and executions of a broader community of both amateurs and experts.

Accessible in ways traditional engineering and product design are not, these technologies rely on a collaborative approach to development that embraces experimentation and rapid prototyping to reimagine what’s possible.

One company continually at the forefront of this conversation is Bug Labs. Their modular device designs treat hardware as a platform and offer a compelling toolkit to individuals and organizations looking to find their way in the burgeoning Internet of Things space.

As part of our series of interviews for the Innovators Index, we spoke to Peter Semmelhack, the company’s founder and CEO, to understand the power of open source and how it’s reshaping the technology industry.

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Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about Bug Labs.

My name is Peter Semmelhack. I’m the founder and CEO of a company called Bug Labs.

We launched in 2008 and we made a device called a “Bug,” which is an open source, modular hardware device. You can build all kinds of gadgets by snapping together modules like LEGO bricks.

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We create tools to empower the inventors of the world to do what they want faster and easier.

One example is a freeboard called, which allows you take a device and program it to ‘talk’ on the Internet in a few simple steps.

Usage has gone through the roof and proven that small-scale models are best for IoT because there aren’t many large-scale opportunities right now.

What motivates you, and what do you enjoy most about your work?

What motivates me is the idea that we can create tools to help others innovate more rapidly. Essentially, empowering the inventors of the world to do what they want faster and easier.

Inventors were telling us that they don’t want to worry about the cost of failure because in many cases, makers are going to go through several trials before figuring out what they want, but that can get expensive. They wanted to have a very iterative, quick model.

The whole notion of a modular hardware system was to make it more efficient and more accessible for people to build gadgets. Without that kind of a model, you’re looking at 12 to 18 months of raw engineering, which is expensive and time consuming.

To that end, we came up with the Freeboard, which was a way of directly addressing the time consumption and expense of traditional prototyping. A modular approach allows you to try things quicker. It invigorated the company because we felt our mission was being accomplished.

When I get up in the morning, I think about how we can take this successful model we have and continue to tweak it and grow it without violating our core mission of simplicity and accessibility.

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Take us through your creative process.

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Being creative has no process whatsoever.

The most compelling starting point for the creative process has to do with a story where there are issues that someone wants to address, either personal or commercial. In large organizations there are whole teams whose job it is to be innovative, the challenge is to find the spark, right?

Many times, being creative has no process whatsoever. You can try to apply discipline to it and say, “OK. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I’m going to be creative.” And to a certain extent, you can make progress that way.

For me, the creative process happens in the most unlikely times and unlikely places. You could be walking down the street when something catches your attention. Personally, that’s where the process starts. What we have found many times is that the creative process is formed by stories.

What does the term disruption mean to you and how is it shaping your own approach?

Disruption is one of those words that has been weighted with all kinds of expectations.

Disruption is not a business model, it’s a way of recontextualizing whatever scenario you’re in. Large organizations are typically disrupted by things that just change how they view the world, or change how they view customers, or change how they view partners, etc.

What’s disruptive for a big company like GE may not be disruptive at all for a small organization. I’ll go back to this idea of simplicity. Everyone agrees that simplicity is important, but it is almost impossible in many cases, especially in larger organizations, to get a simplistic approach approved.

We consider ourselves a disruptor, but we also consider ourselves evangelists for the things that we believe in.

What industry is in most need of radical change and why?

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Disruption is not a business model, it’s a way of recontextualizing whatever scenario you’re in.

In this country, the medical world is in need of drastic change because it’s way too complicated.

The fact that you need to fill out paper forms seven times for one visit is unbelievably antiquated. At a consumer level, the user experience is terrible.

Every device is a separate silo of data. In some cases, that’s important for privacy but that kind of siloed approach results in a host of other issues.

If standards could get developed that would allow data to be shared, devices to communicate with one another and platforms to address these issues, I think the benefits would be enormous.

In the next 10 years, what do you see as the three biggest challenges the world will face?

I think we’re underestimating the impact of clean water and how quickly the population of this world is growing.

How are we going to feed all these people, and how are we going to do it in a way that is ethical and doesn’t require strange new life forms?

I think technology is the answer in both cases. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of technology and what the right people with the right tools can do to help the human condition. I’m hopeful. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on HP Matter: The Idea Economy


Innovators Index Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy. In recognition of the leaders who are disrupting our tech-driven world, PSFK has partnered with HP Matter to create the Innovators Index, a roster of digital pioneers making a global impact. Each week, we’ll share POVs from these experts on their work and process, sharing insights on reinvention and how to embrace change.

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