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Startups Startup drags hardware design out of dark ages with collaborative, browser-based app

Toronto-based Upverter is a collaborative, fully browser-based circuit-board design app that’s racked up more than 20,000 users. The 15-employee business recently raised $2.3-million

A few years back, Michael Woodworth got a call from Zak Homuth, a former housemate from his days as a computer engineering student the University of Waterloo. "One day Zack called me and said, I want to quit my job," Mr. Woodworth recalls. "Seriously, that was the phone call: 'You want to come to Waterloo and start a business?'" He didn't even know what kind of business he wanted to start, but they'd talked a lot about it back in the day.

A third old housemate, Stephen Hamer, flew up from his job in California, and the three sat down with some old homemade whiteboards and started drumming up ideas. "One was to detect pirates from Somalia, and then we realized that we knew nothing about Somalia, or pirates, or shipping, or anything about anything at all, except we had some pretty good slogans from it."

And then it occurred to them that, as students and real-world developers, there was nothing that grated on them so much as the tools they had to use to design circuit boards. To hear Mr. Woodworth describe it, the software had barely escaped the middle ages: It was designed for single users in a world where working on documents together was key.

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"We decided to build software to replace the tools that we hated," says Mr. Woodworth.

Today, the three former housemates have taken over a house of their own in downtown Toronto, with Upverter, a collaborative, fully browser-based circuit-board design app that's racked up more than 20,000 users. The 15-employee business recently raised $2.3-million.

Circuit boards are the connective tissue of hardware devices. Whether you're building a computer or an Internet-enabled toaster, a circuit board physically connects the sundry processing chips, resistors, capacitors, power supplies, wi-fi modules, and antennae – whatever you got – into, connecting their centipede-like pins together in just the right way.

But like most classic pieces of software, the expensive mainstream circuit-board design packages made a multi-person effort taxing: Everyone would work on a little piece of the circuit board, and then someone would have to put the puzzle pieces together.

"Imagine writing documents as a team without Google Docs," says Mr. Woodworth. "You're e-mailing files back and forth. That's where we're at right now."

Upverter's light-on-the-ground, team-friendly approach is geared towards a market where interest in hardware design is booming. The sudden interest in 'Internet of Things' products – a trendy way of saying, everyday gadgets that connect to the Internet, like a wi-fi enabled thermostat – is putting hardware design front-and-centre. It's becoming easier than ever to design a circuit-board, and then send the designs off to China to produce either a trial batch or a production run.

The software's feature set is designed to similarly reduce overhead and tackle old frustrations that might have been barriers to entry. The software has full version control, meaning that any team member can step backwards through the click-by-click design of a circuit-board. Like software developers, they can create an alternate version of the design by branching out from an earlier point in the process. (Upverter's creators liken it to a cross between Google Docs and the ubiquitous software development tool GitHub.)

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It's an approach that the team hopes will make in-roads against establishment packages that are geared for engineers who sit in an office together, even as hardware-design teams increasingly disperse around the world.

"There are some nice things if you're willing to spend $30,000, but there's still no version control, and there's no collaboration," Mr. Woodworth says.

And, he says, when the tools aren't a misery, the challenges of the hardware-design scene can bring their own rewards. "I really encourage people to try playing with simple hardware," he says. "Try to hack and play and understand the difficulties around building hardware. You don't have a compile button. It takes time."

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