Treating your smartphone like it’s the brain of a robot might not be on your immediate to-do list this year. But a hot Cairo startup is betting that many techies, educators and hobbyists will be interested—and both investors and customers are showing confidence in their approach.
Despite their current success, the story behind the formation of Integreight, maker of 1Sheeld, remains an interesting case study in pivoting.
A Promising Start
The team began collaborating as graduate students on an electronics and computer engineering project in Egypt’s Helwan University. They were working to create a ‘smart board’ that helps engineers in prototyping technical projects faster.
The team won first prize in a competition and thought they should try to commercialize the idea. Things were falling into place: they applied to and were accepted by an accelerator, and developed the idea beyond its original concept.
“We learned how to think in a business-oriented way…and we managed to raise funds right after graduating,” Saleh said. It was the first stop toward a larger fundraising event from Cairo Angels.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
A Bump in the Road
Six months into product development, however, they faced a crossroads: a nagging technical issue was preventing them from going to market.
“We were facing a critical tradeoff. If we wanted to achieve the highest quality and perfect specifications, it would increase both the time involved in development and also our cost. Yet we knew we were competing with other [lower quality] products that are very cheap to produce,” Saleh said.
In the end, a viable business outcome wasn’t to be.
Time was perhaps wasted, but all was not lost; they had a team and the right kind of capabilities, Saleh notes, but needed a new direction. “We thought of four different ideas,” he said. “The real problem was that we were much less motivated than before—and that’s why changing your business is difficult.”
Still in limbo, the embedded systems engineers spent a full month working on fleshing out those four ideas—something Saleh considered necessary, but challenging.
“We were hung up on doing a lot of work with no outputs,” he explained. “So after that initial month, we decided that we needed to focus. At that time, my cofounder and CTO came up with the idea of 1Sheeld; he used to do a lot of electronics hacking and computer hacking. Why not enable people to use the GPS sensor in a smartphone instead of buying a GPS sensor for their electronics projects?”
Of their four ideas, 1Sheeld was the most promising and the team had the capabilities to execute, so they opted to move forward quickly.
A Big Shift
“We originally envisioned that we could target engineering students with a tool that would turn their smartphone into a bunch of different Arduino shields,” Saleh said.
He notes that the team wasn’t reinventing themselves or taking on a project that was too heavy a lift. “We mainly looked at what we were able to do; what kind of kits we were already able to produce.”
They had spent a full year working on their previous product, which was never released to the market. This time around, the team agreed they needed to move quickly and that user feedback during the development process would be critical—so within three months, they developed 1Sheeld into a prototype. It was the summer after the country’s second revolution, and the team felt a renewed sense of urgency.
A Run for Their Money
They ran a quick market study on the maker market and produced a Kickstarter campaign to see how the market would respond.
“We thought to ourselves: ‘Let’s not make the same mistake as last time.’ Let’s get it off the market and into schools to see how the product is received.”
After finishing 90% of the hardware and a software proof of concept, they set out to build some buzz around the campaign by emailing electronics enthusiasts. The team aimed to raise $10,000.
They wound up raising 8.5x that amount.
“We were very excited!” Saleh said. “And we were surprised actually by the amount of feedback and sales that got us through. It motivated us to work hard on the idea.”
What had started as an eight-person team had dwindled down to three, with one person working part-time. “We now had the money to hire the team and work on developing the product.”
Advice for Startups
Saleh has some cautionary advice: “I think entrepreneurs procrastinate a lot. We don’t put ultimatums on ourselves, but I think they’re very useful. We spent a year working on a product that didn’t see the light of day. Yet within three months, we went to market with another product. The clock is always ticking, so you need to work fast and work really hard. Get feedback and you’ll improve on the process.”
1Sheeld was technically proven with a working prototype, and backers from 55 countries across the globe—many of whom were located in North America, Europe and Asia.
Today, their app is used in more than 90 countries, and is sold by over 60 distributors. 1Sheeld is used in STEM schools across the United States, as well as in large universities.
“When we get feedback from teachers and educators that it’s easy to use in teaching robotics, we know we’ve hit the right target,” Saleh said. “Tight budgets also have worked to our advantage, in a way. Educators tend to choose our product over others because it uses smartphone hardware—something that most people already have in their pockets.”