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Chatting with Leah Simoncelli, AlphaLab

Say hello to Leah Simoncelli, Operations Manager for the 2017 Hardware Cup, which is an annual hardware startup pitch competition! The Hardware Cup is rolling into Pittsburgh February 21st and she was nice enough to answer some of my questions.

A lightly edited chat is below :)

Zach

Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Leah! So, introduce me to the Hardware Cup?

Leah

Absolutely! We’re currently in our third year of the Hardware Cup. It all started because of AlphaLab Gear, one of the nation’s first hardware startup accelerator programs, heard one too many times from investors that “hardware is hard”. And the reality of the situation is that we’re in the middle of a hardware revolution!

Zach

Ahh, that is true. It seems hardware can be… hard, but there is something rewarding about a physical product.

Leah

There are so many benefits of investing in a hardware company. For instance, your IP is enforceable and it’s easier to buy out a company than to try to reverse engineer their product. This means exits are usually higher. And with the falling cost of sensors and increased access to maker spaces like TechShop, it’s easier than ever before to get a hardware startup off the ground.

Zach

You’re swaying me 😀. What are some of the big opportunities in hardware that investors are looking for?

Leah

We’ve seen some pretty huge ideas in AR/VR and wearable fashion seems to be the next “big thing" …but I think we’ll have to see the pitches at the Hardware Cup 2017 to answer that question effectively!

Zach

Interesting, yeah, I’ve seen a lot of new, fashionable, connected devices as well as simple medical devices for babies that have caught my eye. Can’t wait to see the new contestants. What have been some examples of past winners?

Leah

Well, the national winner last year was LucidCam, which, according to them at least, is the world’s first 3D consumer camera for virtual reality.

Zach

Haha, wow, that’s awesome!

Leah

Yes, they’re doing some pretty amazing stuff! The big idea is that you can capture the world exactly as you see and hear it. So for things like traveling, concerts, etc.

Zach

That sounds cool. Let’s talk prizes 🏆 how was the Hardware Cup able to help them?

Leah

Of course! The prize for the national winner is a $50,000 convertible debt investment from Startbot VC. And this year we have a new prize in addition to that for our national winner: an exhibit booth at “InnoVEX” and COMPUTEX TAIPEI 2017 (InnoVEX is the world’s leading ICT/IoT trade show and global startup platform). That includes airfare to Taiwan and 5 nights of accommodations. The package is courtesy of TAITRA, the organizer of COMPUTEX TAIPEI.

Zach

I like it, that’s a big opportunity for exposure.

Leah

Regional winners receive $3,000 cash and a 1-year license to SOLIDWORKS and we’ll also have an “Audience Favorite” award at each regional competition.

Zach

And the regional competition will be hosted in Pittsburgh?

Leah

There are 7 regional competitions this year: LA (as part of SOLIDWORKS World), Pittsburgh, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale (as part of SUP-X: The Start-up Expo), DC, Chicago, and Austin and then the National Finals in May.

Zach

What makes Pittsburgh stand out so highly for hardware startups that you decided to host the event here?

Leah

Pittsburgh has a really incredible startup ecosystem, and as you probably know, the tech companies that come here are top-notch. The likes of Uber and Google aren’t here for nothing!

Zach

Haha, very true, Pittsburgh has a pretty amazing talent pipeline. Hopefully, events like this can foster that talent into more startups!

Leah

Absolutely! Like I mentioned at the beginning, the whole idea of the Hardware Cup is to find and highlight the most promising hardware startups in the nation and give them the opportunity to pitch to an audience of investors and VCs.

Zach

Any thoughts on judges for the Pittsburgh event yet?

Leah

We haven’t announced all of the Pittsburgh judges yet, but I can share a few names: Catherine Mott from Blue Tree Allied Angels, Ned Renzi from Birchmere Ventures, and Zach Malone from Draper.

Zach

Any early applicants that you have your eyes on as having the potential to win it all?

Leah

Ooh, great question! I don’t know that I can guess a company to win it all yet – applications are still open for 6 of the 7 regions, but I think that the category of wearable fashion is going to have some awesome ideas this year.

Zach

Interesting.. Well, I can’t wait to see it! February 21st, Techshop, open to the public. Sounds like fun! Are applications open until February 7th?

Leah

Haha awesome =))

Zach

Anything else you’d like to share?

Leah

I’d just love to share one more thing: Don’t let the term hardware scare you off! We define hardware very broadly – any team with a physical product component is eligible to apply. That means AR/VR and robotics as well as consumer electronics and fashion!

Zach

Awesome, can’t wait to see some of the gadgets. Hopefully, I’ll meet you there!

LeaH

Absolutely! Please come say hi – there’s plenty of time to eat, drink, and network after the regional finalist is announced. After the pitch competition, there’s also the opportunity to network with other attendees, including seasoned entrepreneurs, investors, and VCs, so come prepared to chat about your current projects :)

Zach

Sounds good. Thanks for your time tonight, Leah! @everyone check out the 2017 Hardware Cup at http://alphalabgear.org/hardwarecup/ and make sure to apply or attend!

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