The week before Thanksgiving, East Harriet resident Zach Supalla and a team of local entrepreneurs unveiled a very cool new project.
Essentially, Supalla has come up with a very intelligent light socket that you can control from your smartphone or computer. Called a Spark, the small, barrel-shaped device screws in between your regular light sockets and your dimmable light bulbs. It connects to the Internet via your home wifi router, letting a user do everything from setting timers on their lights before vacation, to remotely turning them on and off using a special chip called an Arduino.
That may sound pretty simple, until you consider that these basic functions are just the beginning. The real genius of Spark, according to Supalla, is its free, open software. Any software developer in the world can use the Spark platform to come up with a fairly unlimited set of programs that can dramatically expand its functionality. Already, Supalla told Patch, he’s hoping someone will come up with an app that will dim or brighten a light in a user’s house depending on how close their smartphone-equipped child is to home, like a certain Weasley family clock from the Harry Potter movies.
“There’s only so much we can do or come up with by ourselves with any sized team,” Supalla told Patch. “Look at the iPhone for example. Apple makes great aps—Camera, Mail and Safari—but there are hundreds of thousands of other applications that are for markets that are too small for Apple or just aren’t their focus.”
Spark’s journey has, so far, been a success story for two new Minneapolis “startup labs.” The Mill and CoCo, were both founded, essentially, to be big hives of energy, where creative types get desk space or machine time to work, and hopefully bump into each other and create The Next Big Thing. At The Mill, Supalla said he and his team were able to fabricate prototypes as they tinkered with the design (the different iterations can be seen on Spark’s Kickstarter page). Spark, said CoCo co-founder Don Ball, used the group’s downtown Minneapolis space to plot, write software, and even to meet a crucial member of their staff.
“If you’re developing something that requires some level of innovation, you have to have those collisions” between people with different ideas and skills, Ball said. “There are various skill sets you need to tap into for any startup project. Finance might be hard to find at a maker space (like The Mill), for example. It’s those happy accidents that keep people coming back to CoCo.”
But no matter how much tinkering the Spark crew—including another East Harriet resident, Stephanie Rich—does at either The Mill or CoCo, they’ll never be able to scale up their product and start making money on it, or creating jobs. For that, they need to overcome some big hurdles, like cheaply ironing out all the kinks in their prototypes and proving to potential manufacturers that their product will be popular enough to be worth mass—production.
“If you look at the startup world over the last five to 10 years, it’s been very focused on software,” Supalla told Patch. ”The cost of creating software is so low. You can put five or 10 grand into something and see if it pans out. Hardware a little bit behind because it’s so capital-intensive to set up the production lines.”
To solve the problem, Spark is turning to Kickstarter to gauge the appeal of their device, turning the investment risk problem on its head.
“You can do surveys, but that won’t tell you if someone will really put money down on something,” Supalla said. “It’s also capital—it gives you money to do what you want to do.”
So far, Spark has pulled in $71,663 from 953 people in the first half of their campaign, which is aiming for $250,000.
To see Spark in action, watch their Kickstarter video, above, or head on over to their Kickstarter page.
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