Even the most sought-after gadgets have a short shelf life, often finding themselves second rate, or fodder for landfills, due to the rapid pace of technological change. A new startup, Nascent Objects, believes there’s a better way, creating an ecosystem of electronics that allows users to not only design their products, but reclaim and reuse the key components for their next tool or toy.
Founder and CEO Baback Elmieh was inspired to develop the system after a career at companies such as Motorola gave him a deep insight into the waste and overlap in consumer electronics manufacturing. To create more earth-friendly electronics, his company, based in San Carlos, California, started with an experiment that may not seem so sustainable in hindsight. Along with other members of the Nascent Object team, he purchased 585 consumer electronics products—smart thermostats, action cameras, basically anything with a WiFi or Bluetooth connection and a computing chip—and gutted them, pulling out the insides and comparing parts. The team discovered that with less than 15 interchangeable modules, they could recreate 80 percent of the products they had just ripped apart.
That formed the basis of the Nascent Objects system, a recent Indiegogo success story which operates, in part, like the old electronics kits that used to entertain kids with interchangeable wires and diodes. The system of parts, including accelerometers and cameras, can be reconfigured and reworked to extend their lifespan. While most consumer electronics are sold on refresh cycles that require a new purchase every few years, with Nascent Objects, you don’t have to toss an entire object, you can simply reuse or upgrade.
Their model is a direct challenge to the way business has been done for the last 60-80 years, releasing single-use products that lock up the electronics inside. The platform consists of roughly 15 interchangeable modules. Product designers or makers who want to create, for instance, a baby monitor, would use Nascent Objects software to create and design the product with separate pieces, such as a camera. When finished, the software calculates the object’s shape and circuits, and uses 3D printing to create the frame, or housing. The end user takes the housing, inserts the modules, and the product is ready to go.
The interoperability means that the parts inside a security camera, for instance, can be altered to serve as a GoPro-type camera and even a baby monitor. The company is even looking at the lifecycle of products for babies, examining how a series of parts can work as a fetal heartbeat monitor, then be adjusted to serve as a thermometer and even a baby monitor, all using significantly less materials and generating less waste. Elmieh believes that the rise in more distributed supply chains and better technology lowers the barrier of entry for designers, meaning that startups like his can now release the kind of products that used to require the work of a massive company.
"We’re a tiny company and we’re shipping three products already," he says. "We’ll have 10 by the end of the year. Who does that?"
So far, the main release from Nascent Objects is the Droppler, a porcelain, vase-shaped water monitor that showcases the flexibility and possibilities of the platform. A "Shazam for water," the product analyzes the sound of sinks and toilets to calculate water usage. It’s a very niche, specific product, designed in part to help drought-stricken Californians cut down on water use. For other companies, making this kind of hardware would be a big bet in terms of direction, production capacity, and capital. For Nascent Objects, it’s one of many bespoke products they can make simultaneously, including the Coucou security camera and Red wifi speaker, with minimal investment in a typical manufacturing plant or assembly line.
The company also has a number of new products in the works. They’re currently adding additional modules, including a streaming cameras and drone kit, to expand the possibilities of the Nascent Objects ecosystem. While the concepts Elmieh sketches out seem futuristic, he believes they’re going to become more and more mainstream, especially in light of Google’s experiments with the modular Ara smartphone.
"Right now, it’s not the way they do things," he says. "There’s some barriers, organizationally and structurally. But we’ll get to a point where design is more about quickness and change."