ProtoExchange: Austin’s hardware Cupid

by Ross Charles Langley
March 25, 2015

ProtoExchange is a different kind of matchmaker. 

The Austin startup and Techstars alum connects hardware dreamers to a marketplace for development, outsourcing their needs to some of the world’s best hardware engineers for on-demand assistance. Want to know what that looks like? Their cupid-like matchmaking skills have hit some seriously sexy marks, including Atlas Wearables, which designed a wristband that monitors and identifies your exercise, and Hammerhead, a bicycle accessory and accompanying app that guides you through your ride with intuitive light signals.

Later this year, ProtoExchange aims to add to the market a lovechild all their own: a software that will change the way engineers and manufacturers share and collaborate, regardless of their location. 

 

Incubation

Initially set up on the East Coast as a manufacturing and distribution venture for 3D printing, CEO and Co-Founder Jonathan Placa explained how ProtoExchange faced some steep but 

essential learning curves that came to define the services they now offer. “We had trouble with economies of scale,” he said. “We did everything manually and were stretched thin, so we took the software marketplace model and applied it to hardware.”

This shift in dynamic better utilized the three founders’ engineering disciplines and showcased an adaptability that’s become a feature of their work, and won the attention of investors. 

Austin-based accelerator Techstars drew ProtoExchange from the East in 2013, providing $118,000 in funding and mentorship. “The mentorship we received from Techstars was arguably the most valuable thing we could ever ask for. We had the opportunity to return to the East Coast, but opted not to,” he explained. “New York is prohibitively expensive, and banks with deep pockets poach engineering talent, making it difficult to grow.”

Cost of living, weather and the “phenomenal resource for talent at UT” all made Austin the obvious choice for ProtoExchange’s home base. 

Now their work is far more dynamic, offering a hardware engineering marketplace covering three phases of development: 

  1. Research and Organization – covering documentation and design reviews.

  2. Design & Development – providing resources to assist with 3D modeling, PCB design, and Design for Manufacturing (DFM) optimization.

  3. Manufacturing & Logistics – to help manage RFQ/RFPs, order components, and logistics support.

The Software

Placa makes a compelling argument about the idea that collaboration is not limited to software engineers. “The current workflow, when dealing with remote engineers and manufacturers, includes screenshots, Excel, and PowerPoint annotations. As a project grows, this workflow becomes cumbersome and unreliable.”

It’s an outdated practice that creates gaps across engineering and manufacturing disciplines, but ProtoExchange aims to banish that philosophy. “We think that collaboration can span this gap and actually start branching out into all other forms of engineering. By putting ourselves in the middle of two engineers collaborating, we learned what works and what doesn’t work when engineers are working in remote environments.” 

The application has been designed in a way that allows engineers to assign, complete, comment, and delete tasks and revisions. All changes are automatically saved so that engineers can see the evolution of a product. “Our vision is to enable non-software engineers to work together, regardless of their location,” he said. “We believe that open engineering will benefits the world as a whole.”

 

Manual Labor

What began as ProtoExchange’s biggest hurdle has become one of Placa's top pieces of advice to startups: “Do things manually. What you think your business is, you probably don’t have it right, and that’s totally fine. The fact is you just have to get out, and start executing on it. I was working from my parents’ basement. Our first sale I drove out a 3D printed prototype to this dude’s house and dropped it off – that was the start, that was our first sale,” he said, laughing. “Your customers will tell you what they like and don’t like,” he added. “Be open to admitting that you don’t know everything.”

ProtoExchange also hopes to come out the other side of 2015 with a clear brand identity by engaging in community outreach with hackathons and meetups.

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