Experimenting at Full Scale: Rachel Kalmar on Being a Maker

Interviewed by: Ahmed Siddiqui

Rachel Kalmar was the winner of the Health track at Mega Startup Weekend in October 2011 and is a co-founder of Senstore, a startup developing a medical tricorder (http://www.qualcommtricorderxprize.org/), by focusing on making sensor data accessible and actionable.  A Stanford neuroscience PhD, she is passionate about using data to explain, predict and influence behavior.  

As a mentor for our upcoming Startup Weekend Bay Area Maker event, Rachel answered some questions about her experience as a Maker, and her predictions for the future:

AS: What got you most interested in Making/Hacking?

RK: I’ve always loved building things, especially when there’s a practical challenge I’m facing, and need to figure out a way around it.  As an experimental neuroscientist, being able to hack things together to keep experiments running was essential.  While in grad school, I used this to justify taking mechanical engineering classes and classes at the d.school.  This is where I first saw a user (other than myself) using what I had built.  It’s an incredible feeling, and it kept me coming back for more.  By the end of grad school, I’d realized that, while I love science, I wanted to explore more what I’d experienced at the d.school — turning ideas about users’ needs into products.

AS: What did you build at Mega Startup Weekend?

RKMy friend Antony and I came to Mega Startup Weekend with a t-shirt with an Arduino Lilypad, a Bluetooth board, and an accelerometer on it, and some code to get the sensor signals via Bluetooth.  We wanted to see whether other people would want to hack on this, for a health application.  Our team used our t-shirt prototype as a starting point, and built an app to allow our parents or grandparents to live at home independently for longer.  To do this, the app took in data from the accelerometer to detect falls, and then if the wearer fell, it would send a text message alert to a loved one, and if necessary, to medical services.

AS: Where is the company now?

RKAntony and I are continuing to work on Senstore, the sensor platform we brought to Startup Weekend, as part of the Rock Health accelerator program.

AS: What part of Startup Weekend did you love the most?

RKI loved getting to meet so many people from different backgrounds, who all came together to make something happen in a short weekend.  The energy is incredible – you go from idea to a prototype in less than 72 hours. It’s also a great way to get people to understand the lean startup methodology – build something now, don’t get it perfect, but build something you’ll be able to get feedback on – and it’s a great way to get perfectionists like myself moving quickly. I’ve been learning that in the startup world, speed is way more important than perfection. Working with other motivated people in a low-pressure environment at Startup Weekend was a great way to get into this mindset.

AS: Where do you see 3D printing going in the next year?  Next 5 years?

RK3D printing is an exponential technology that’s at the knee of the curve right now, about to take off.  In the next year, I predict that the cost of 3D printers will drop dramatically, allowing far more people to be able to buy their own.  Combined with advances in 3D scanning software and technology, I look forward to the day we’ll be able to use 3D printing not only for prototyping, but also for printing spare parts on demand.  Within the next 5 years, I see significant progress happening on the biological front: printing of organs and blood vessels, specifically.  Right now this biological 3D printing is basically at the proof-of-concept stage, but it’s improving rapidly.  I’m excited to see how far it will go in the coming years.

AS: Where do you think sensors and electronic hardware going in the next year?  Next 5 years?

RKSensors are getting smaller, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, in addition to being increasingly more wirelessly connected.  This is another exponential technology at the knee of the curve — we’re about to see an explosion in the ‘Internet of Things’ as our surroundings and our objects are able to communicate with us and with the internet.  The embracing of tools like Arduino by the maker community are also making it easier for relatively inexperienced people to work on projects that would otherwise be outside their abilities.  I also see sensors shrinking radically — check out mc10’s stretchy microcircuits.  This is going to be truly disruptive.  

Antony and I have been running a meetup for people working on sensor devices and applications, and it’s pretty clear that right now the challenge is realtime wireless connectivity.  As Bluetooth low energy becomes the new standard, the power required for sensors to be transmitting data will drop, enabling much more monitoring via wearable sensors.  Right now, wearable sensors are big for people in the Quantified Self community, but are becoming increasingly mainstream.  When wearable sensors are embedded into devices you already wear (e.g., your clothing), can seamlessly transmit data to the web and web services, and make actionable suggestions about your behavior, that’s when sensors are going to change our way of living in the same way the smartphone has been doing.  That’s probably going to at least start in the next 5 years.

AS: What do you think is going to happen to mass production in the next few years?

RKHave you read Cory Doctorow’s book Makers?  He paints a pretty clear vision of a future in a post-industrial society, where people are able to print products from 3D printers in their homes.  I’m excited about the trends of 3D printing continuing to get better and cheaper, and look forward to the day I can print specialized parts for my car or my unicycle from my living room, rather than ordering them from the internet.  Economies of scale will mean that it still makes sense to manufacture some things in the way they’re made now.  However, tools like 3D printing and services that make it easier for people to design and print their own PCBs (e.g. Upverter) make it much easier to rapidly prototype and test products.

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