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Hardware startup North’s big pivot bet on wearable computing and platform shifts

Waterloo, Canada-based hardware startup North is a rare bird when it comes to the tech sector: It began life as an entirely different kind of hardware startup as Thalmic Labs in 2012, and launched a major pivot and re-brand in 2018.

The shift included a new name, and an entirely new product focus. It launched its Focals smart glasses last year, and earlier in 2019 sold the tech behind its original product a gesture control armband called Myo, to CTRL-labs.

This kind of system-shocking directional change can cause whiplash at even far less ambitious software startups, but when I spoke to co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake about the change and the company’s new focus, he spoke of the about-face more as a natural evolution long in the making than a late-stage shift.

“It goes way back when we started Thalmic in 2012,” Lake said. “Actually, we were working on our Myo product, which was an input for heads-up displays, VR headsets, etc. We realized back then, when we were pairing it up with the early versions of [Google] Glass and a whole variety of other displays and smart glasses, that the glasses were so far from being the consumer product that we actually wanted to wear and use. And we said, ‘We think directionally this is going to exist, we think there’s this future where we can bring technology with us into the world end up being less distracted, more present, but still get those benefits we get from computing today.’ Instead of the future of staring at screens, or being cut off in like Ready Player One world in the future, actually bringing technology and make it a seamless part of our world.”

Basically, Lake positions the problem as a kind of classic ‘cart before the horse’ dilemma: How could its interface device for a future class of devices achieve meaningful purchase if that class of devices was off to a slower start than anticipated? A less ambitious startup might’ve refocused on innovating accessories for an established device market, but Lake says his company instead took aim at pioneering an entirely new class of consumer device.

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