The big difference between a hardware and software startup
In a sense, kicking off a software oriented startup is easy.
Write some code, launch, troubleshoot, patch, update, refine..and sell of course. You’re operating in the virtual world of bits and bytes and can test, change and sell on the run (almost).
When you’re making something that you can physically drop on your toe, timelines are much longer.
In Eight360’s case, that length of time from idea to prototype to market and signing the first sale has been just under five years.
The Technology Valley Petone based company has created what is a world first - the NOVA. The device is a unique spherical motion simulator which uses VR to create a fully immersive experience. Once you climb inside and strap in, the NOVA is fully untethered and able to do rolls, flips and spins to create a realistic vehicle experience.
Commercial sales of the NOVA platform are now ramping up. Simulation and training applications are first targets - organisations willing to pay to save lives or machinery by practising on a simulator instead of the real thing.
A long time in the making
Eight360 co-founder, Chief Everything Officer, and self-described ‘Chaos Pilot’ Terry Miller has been with the project since it began over a beer or two at MakerSpace Wellington nearly five years ago.
The Electronic and Computer Systems Engineer (Victoria University) graduate and Wellington native spent two years in Tauranga after leaving university - designing horticulture monitoring and control products for Bluelab Corp. The company is a leader in tech innovation and offered a great opportunity for a young engineer to learn from a kiwi company taking product to the world. (Bluelab recently won the Excellence in Innovation award at the New Zealand International Business Awards).
Returning to Wellington, Terry quickly began looking for projects outside of his day job doing Research and Development for a dairy automation company.
This led to MakerSpace conversations, and over weekends and evenings the construction of a “ball contraption that looked awesome, but it also turned out it worked,” he says.
“As we progressed we were proving that what we were trying to build was actually possible. It was something worth carrying on with.”
A move to an abandoned garage on the Callaghan Innovation campus in Gracefield was next, followed by a year at First Assembly (an incubator for manufacturing ideas and products in Lower Hutt).
Eight360 then moved to an office in Mount Cook at the beginning of 2019 which they shared with another startup, and finally at the tail end of 2019 they secured an office/factory site in Petone which is set to be their permanent home.
“As we were upgrading the ball, we were upgrading our building,” says Terry.
During this time Eight360 took on private investment through the Angel Community, allowing the development of the ‘NOVA v3’, a customer-ready product.
“Then we signed our first customer, and on the same day I was awarded Young Engineer Of The Year! It was a crazy day” he says.
The move to Petone on the back of this sale, for what is now a team of seven highly skilled and varied engineers, allows for continued growth.
“We’re keeping the ball rolling; 2020’s going to be big for us,” Terry says.
Funding its development
The NOVA’s early development was self-funded by the founders - including Terry living at home with his parents (along with his partner...and more recently a baby on the way).
He has worked full time on Eight360 for the past 2.5 years, and at the time of interview (December 2019) has just reached the auspicious milestone of paying himself salary for the first time ever. The team has all been working on slave wages to try to get the company off the ground - with the expectation that their salaries will ramp up as the company expands.
It is managing that expected growth, for what still appears to be a unique product in the world, that will be fundamental.
“The NOVA is an enabling technology, effectively a virtual vehicle...” says Terry.
“It’s a device that is able to transport you somewhere else, and put you in the driver’s seat - plane, car, submarine, space ship - it isn’t limited to a specific use case.”
From that point of view, as the total-freedom-of-movement ball has been developed, its business case and value propositions have been assessed.
To this extent, Eight360’s business model is hardware as a service. Other people’s software can slot straight into its enabling technology.
Terry says while Virtual Reality has an expanding mandate, V.R. along with motion simulation is a much smaller niche.
“What we’ve done, a lot of people say is impossible,” he says.
“The fact people think that suggests we’re ahead of the game.”
Three main markets appear most feasible for Eight360 at this stage:
- Entertainment. Location-based attractions, for tourists and others. Providing an awesome experience that people are happy to pay for
- Promotion and outreach. At events, showcasing and demonstrating items like cars and planes or content experiences and software products
- Simulation and training. Jobs that are dangerous and difficult to practice. Forestry, military, flight schools. The ability to practice without danger
From Eight360’s point of view, the lowest hanging fruit and the market with the greatest need are in the simulation arena. The company’s value proposition is that it saves organisations’ money and keeps their people out of harm’s way. The company is positioning the NOVA as a premium offering, and the price point for leasing the platform will be into the six figures.
The NOVA ball’s secret sauce is:
- The ability to operate an untethered spherical simulator...and control it precisely
- Fully-tracked VR headset inside, that supports off the shelf software.
However Eight360 hasn’t taken out patents on their unique technology - IP protection coming from trade secrets and speed to market as well as, “this is a complicated piece of kit, this is not easy to do.”
The next stage of growth is to expand internationally, aiming to be manufacturing units at one or more a week with a very open-ended potential and rewards for this long-term hardware project.
Terry says he’s well aware the journey in front of the company will be a challenge.
But having developed a solution that nobody else has, Eight360 has an opportunity to stand out, leading the next generation of futuristic simulation technology.
(Caption: Eight360 'Chaos Pilot' Terry Miller and the NOVA untethered simulation ball)