With Senic, Tobias Eichenwald has founded one of the few German hardware start-ups to attract investor capital from the USA. With his Nuimo, the young Berlin CEO is looking to make the smartphone superfluous. In some ways, at least.
Senic’s office isn’t actually an office at all. Tobias Eichenwald, along with his co-founders Philip Michaelides and Felix Christmann and the rest of the staff, is still working out of his living room. But that saves time – something that the start-up crowd never have enough of anyway. Senic is, however, a hardware start-up; instead of a foosball table and cushions, there are countless prototypes and other things to touch.
Tobias, with Nuimo you can control anything in your apartment that can be electronically networked. How much does this small piece of hardware, which looks a little like a big control knob, weigh?
Tobias Eichenwald: Our goal was 200 grams, as that would allow people to use the Nuimo in the same way and situations we do – for example, as an interface on the living room coffee table that the whole family can use. The question was whether we would manage that automatically after installing all of the components we needed, or whether we would have to make some parts lighter or heavier. But in the end, it weighed exactly 195 grams.
And now you want to revolutionize the digitized home – and encroach on the almighty power of the smartphone in the process?
That’s right. We’re replacing the graphical user interface that we know from the smartphone with everyday objects like a knob or a surface. What we’re doing is constructing the user interface that will succeed the smartphone.
… which at first sounds crazy. Hasn’t it been the case until now that people are always looking for more ways to manage and take care of things with their smartphones? And that’s already a thing of the past?
Well, it’s no longer the future, at least. Up until now, the smartphone has made total sense, because its millionfold distribution has meant that the technology has been relatively inexpensive. But that is exactly what has led to the improved affordability and accessibility of this kind of hardware. And now it is easier to build completely different interfaces. So the barriers are falling, and at the same time people have a stronger desire for more natural and direct ways of interacting with technology.
So what is the major disadvantage of smartphones?
The smartphone is kind of like a Swiss army knife. Somehow, it can do everything and is very flexible, but there are situations where it just isn’t the best interface. While a smartphone is great to have when you’re out and about, it isn’t so great for the home, where you want to access everything together as a household. You want to be able to control your music when you have visitors, wherever you are in your apartment and without being distracted by text messages.
We’re not saying that the smartphone and its graphical interface will disappear once and for all – it has its place when I’m on the go, when I need to be prepared for anything and everything. But for spaces like our own homes, we need alternative ways to interact with technology. We are used to turning on a light in one single step. Now, with the concept of the smart home, we are expected to go through 10 to 20 steps with our smartphones in order to control the light in our apartment. That’s not progress; that’s a step backwards.
Why smartphones are not an enhancement in the home
There is of course also a trend where people aren’t allowing digitization to infringe too much on their personal lives.
Alongside the obvious, there are also things here that affect us in subtle ways that most people don’t even realise: it has been proven that my smartphone only needs to be at the edge of my field of vision – that is, I can only sense it indirectly – for it to have a negative effect on the quality of communication with other people.
And then there’s the fact that, according to the principle of biofeedback, posture can affect the psyche. We tend to use our smartphones with our bodies bent slightly forward – the natural pose we adopt when we are afraid of something. That isn’t exactly conducive to well-being.
Your Nuimo is somewhat reminiscent of Bauhaus design. What is this category of technology actually called?
In smartphone jargon, people talk about a GUI, or a
Graphical User Interface. What we are creating is a NUI, or a Natural User Interface. The name of our product is derived from this term: Natural User Interface in Motion, or in short: Nuimo. We love technology, but we’d like it to run, as far as possible, behind the scenes of our everyday lives so that people can once again concentrate on the things that are really important.
So what does this control knob allow you to do?
We can manage the lights, connect to loudspeakers, use the touch surface on top of the control knob to choose songs or select a playlist. I can then switch it over and use the very same touch surface to regulate the thermostat in the apartment. By the way, you can also control the Nuimo with touchless gestures, which is pretty helpful while cooking, for example.
“Natural User Interface”
And if I’ve understood it correctly, there’s no certain place where you keep the Nuimo.
We wanted to create a piece of technology that can be integrated into any interior in the best way possible. When people get home, the first thing they do is pick up the Nuimo next to the door and turn on their music, even before they’ve taken off their jackets. In this way, people listen to more music during the day.
Senic is one of the few start-ups in Germany to have received funding from the USA.
That’s right. We applied to Y Combinator, where companies like Dropbox originated. So that’s a huge thing for a start-up from Germany. After a kind of cross-examination, we ended up becoming one of just a few German start-ups to be chosen, and the first German hardware start-up overall. As a result, we received initial financing of $80,000 as well as contact with other start-ups that are also supported by the fund. It also involved us initially spending three months in Silicon Valley to work on our product and get weekly feedback. I stayed for an extra three months to do fund-raising. The Americans are well ahead of Germany when it comes to financing hardware start-ups. However, we want to stay in Germany for development at least, as we can produce the best hardware here. But we will also be opening up a business development office in California.
Emigrating for the German start-up scene
You are a perfect example of how the start-up scene here in Germany is becoming a lot more professional. With your business and engineering degrees, you could have also started working in “normal” industry.
That’s true, but we had no desire to end up in a normal job in industry where we would be limited all the time. We want to build what we believe in. I don’t like it when I can’t put the ideas that I have into practice.
On the other hand, we also see that, as a small hardware company, people often don’t take us seriously. I find this attitude here very damaging, as other countries like the USA, China, and even France are overtaking Germany in the hardware start-up sector. And in theory, Germany even has the optimum conditions for these kinds of start-ups.
What was the most surprising thing you noticed in Silicon Valley?
We are working with companies like Cisco, Intel and Deutsche Telekom. It is virtually impossible to get anywhere near the Vice President of a company in Germany. But we’d only just arrived in Silicon Valley before we met all of the German VPs directly and were having a relaxed, laid-back chat with them.
Interaction with others comes far more naturally there, anyway. At every meeting, people will give you 10 further contacts that you should meet, including an introductory mail, even if you didn’t ask for them. That’s a part of their normal business culture. Helping others is an incredibly helpful way of promoting yourself. That sounds like a contradiction, but sooner or later I give the other person names of important contacts that can help him further, too. But this culture hasn’t quite reached Germany yet. We are trying to set an example and share a great deal of our knowledge and contacts with other people, whether through our blog, hackathons or directly.
And what have been the biggest obstacles so far in your time as a company founder?
Well, now Nuimo has won several design awards, but the earlier trials and prototypes were, of course, far from stylish. It was really difficult to make the investors understand that our – at that time chunky – product would at some point look totally amazing. It is altogether very difficult to plant an idea of a future in people’s minds that doesn’t exist yet. We also would never have thought how important fine details like weight and feel would be to the project. Simply by picking up Nuimo and experiencing for themselves how lightweight and refined it is, people are totally surprised and suddenly understand how this alternative future can feel. Then nobody wants to go back and they look forward to more of the same. We feel that way, too – and that’s why we are simply building this future ourselves.
Author: Klaus Rathje
Photographs: Viktor Strasse
Translation: Toby Skingsley