Chinese innovation hub helps turn student project into commercial product

Chinese innovation hub helps turn student project into commercial product

Image credit: EngX

A student project designed to improve 3D printing technology is one step closer to commercial success, thanks to backing from a renowned Chinese accelerator programme.

EngX One began life as the student project of University of Bristol graduates Alex Michaels, Ed Cooper, Jack Pearson and Glen Cahill. As part of their engineering design master’s degree they were tasked with a project to improve 3D printing. The team began looking at ways to improve the strength, speed and functionality of the technology and, with support from the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), the students developed a ‘workshop in a box’; an automated machine that combines manufacturing, assembly and electronics fabrication, allowing users to create smart products on demand.

“The course features two years of group research and design, focused around an industrial programme,” says Pearson, now CEO of the group’s company EngX. “We worked with the MTC to improve fused deposition modeling (FDM) and take it from a consumer/prototyping technology to the point where it could be used to build fully functioning products. We’ve since built on this project and developed it into a product ready for industry.

“By combining manufacturing, assembly and wiring into one process you can create fully integrated electromechanical products direct from digital,” he continues. “Wiring and interconnection are one of the most time-consuming aspects of production and are often still completed by hand. Our process allows you to automate these processes, reducing cycle time and skill requirements. This has a number of advantages including completely novel design capabilities. The key way we’re hoping to help is by allowing manufacturers to produce custom products at scale.”

Upon graduating, the team members were keen to continue working on EngX One but were unable to fund product development themselves. However, they discovered and applied for some of the many grants and competitions available to young entrepreneurs, securing enough funding to continue their work.

Through the Jisc Supporting Technology Startups scheme EngX was given £20,000 to develop the product as well as six months of business mentorship and pitching opportunities. This helped the graduates develop a sound business plan – one that took them to the other side of the world.

“Shenzhen, China, has gained a reputation of being one of the best places to develop a product, so at the end of 2016 we decided to relocate there for a four-week R&D sprint,” says Pearson. “Working from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Shenzhen Institute, we designed and manufactured our second generation prototype.

“By living leanly and bootstrapping development we made the funding go a long way in the UK but China has been a good move for us. Development is much faster here and our costs have dropped to about 25 per cent,” he says.

“Shenzen is being recognised as the present silicon valley for hardware,” explains Anant Raj Pathak, an analyst at HAX, the organisation behind the HAX Accelerator programme. “San Francisco has spawned great software and hardware companies alike, however, it’s extremely difficult to take a hardware idea all the way from prototype to manufacture there.

“Shenzhen on the other hand is a city intentionally created, from a fishing village less than 40 years ago, with the explicit mandate of being a manufacturing hub. However, it’s one thing to intend and another to do – and then actually have it endure. In Shenzhen's case, it was able to do this by creating a unique combination of speed, quality and cost as its differentiating factor.”

During their visit to the city the graduates spent as much time as they could networking with Shenzen’s hardware community. This led to an initiation to apply for the HAX Accelerator programme.

A seed accelerator focused specifically on hardware start-ups, companies on the programme relocate to the HAX offices for 111 days, where they finalise their prototypes and have access to a team of mentors and advisors. For the final two weeks of the programme, they focus on refining their pitch, ready for the HAX demo day in San Francisco where they showcase their products to potential investors as well as the press.

“HAX started five years ago and we've grown from investing in 15 companies per year to 40,” says Pathak. “At the time, we saw a rise in hardware innovation for reasons including, but not limited to, the advent of 3D printing, sensors becoming cheaper and better and the growth of the Arduino as a prototyping platform.

“Clearly, the IoT movement was afoot but there was no support system for connected hardware makers to take their products to mass manufacturing. It was then that we decided to make use of this untapped opportunity by leveraging the power of the Shenzhen ecosystem and create the world’s first accelerator program exclusively for hardware companies,” he enthuses.

EngX gained a place on the programme alongside the top 3 per cent of applicants, which are evaluated on technology, team and market.

“We receive over 2,000 applications per year,” says Pathak. “We first assess tech defensibility – is it a cheaper and/or better way of doing something and what will prevent it from being easily copied? After that, we ask if the team has the requisite skills to execute this. Last, but not least, we identify the economic foundations of the problem the product is looking to solve and see if the combination of tech and team is able to plug that gap.

“EngX ticked all of the above mentioned boxes for us. Currently, 3D printers essentially just let you print the shell of a product and not a functioning product itself. This prevents the full-scale automation of the production process. We believe EngX’s technology is foundational to achieving the vision of fully automated and distributed manufacturing and the total factor productivity gains which would result from that.”

Pearson says the HAX accelerator programme is a crash course in building a sustainable hardware business, and the team is now in the process of taking the product from proof of principle to a functioning product ready for pilot partners. At the same time the graduates are also being supported by business, sales and marketing mentors who are helping them develop a launch strategy.

“We have a constant flow of engineers, designers, marketers and investors who come through and give us advice through lectures or one-to-one mentorship,” Pearson explains. “On a weekly basis the cohort gets together and discusses their technical challenges with alumni over pizza. From a daily perspective we as a team have our own routine and this varies – we start the day with a sprint plan and then each get on with our separate tasks.

“Currently we’re focused on product development in the workshop. We’re also spending a lot of time speaking to customers about their challenges and needs. We’re working very closely with the HAX team’s industrial designer, strategists, marketers and media team to make sure everything we do is on point.”

EngX has now been based in China since March and on completion of the programme the graduates plan to split their time between China and the UK. September will see them fly over to San Francisco for the HAX demo day, and they’re currently looking to recruit pilot partners in order to trial EngX One early next year.

“We’ll be launching our product with a select number of companies to validate it in the workplace before we gear up for full production,” Pearson says.

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