When opportunity comes calling, you drop everything to answer it.

For the Voltera team, that meant closing up shop at the University of Waterloo Velocity Foundry, getting visas, vaccinations and flights, and moving to China within two weeks of their acceptance to HAXLR8R.

The startup, which is solving the problem of long lead times for fabricating circuit boards, needed this kind of focus to advance from prototype to production-ready.


The Voltera V-One (Photo courtesy of Voltera)

The Voltera V-One, their $1,500 circuit-board printer, has been a hit so far, and took home the $50,000 prize from this year’s TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas.

Voltera then launched a Kickstarter campaign in early February and has already earned its $70,000 goal more than five times over.

“I’m absolutely astounded and amazed at the team in terms of their persistence, as well as their passion for solving this problem,” says Mike Kirkup, Director of UW’s Velocity program.

Sudden as it seems, this wave of recent success has been almost two years in the making.

It all started as a third-year mechatronics design project for co-founders Alroy Almeida, Jesus Zozaya and James Pickard. While they were still at UW, they won the Velocity Fund Finals (formerly the Velocity Venture Fund).

“They had a very basic prototype of proving that it was possible,” Kirkup says.

The team then moved into the Velocity Garage at the Communitech Hub in May 2013.

Their first order of business was to bring on a fourth co-founder, Katarina Ilic, a nanotechnology engineer.

“[Kat] was instrumental from a nano perspective, in being able to take the company and really dive in on the chemical side and really build that out,” Kirkup says.

Almeida focused on writing grants and the business side as the team dived into research and development in an attempt to marry two technologies: a chemical agent and a mechanical system for distribution.

“The lowest of low points was when they were hitting a combination of technologies that didn’t work, and then they would have to go all the way back to the start,” Kirkup recalls.

They finally landed on conductive inks, which the V-One prints onto the circuit boards, and has only recently become commercially viable.

Fast forward just over a year to July 2014, when the team left for Shenzhen, China.

“The entire country runs like a startup; everybody works all day, every day, and moves incredibly quickly,” Almeida says.

“We [in Waterloo Region] rely on technology in order to be able to find efficiencies and to make processes move faster. There, they just throw people at the problem – which works really well.”

It is also like Disney World for any electronics junkie.

Almeida would leave the HAXLR8R office and see multiple blocks of large buildings that housed residents on the upper floors and large electronics markets at street level.

“I could buy anything from an individual resistor to a full-blown computer and anything in between,” he says. “I could buy parts for robots, for computers, for phones.”

Aside from the excitement of being in the “electronics capital of the world,” the Voltera team saw other advantages.

“One of the benefits of an accelerator, especially out of your hometown, is that you’re completely isolated,” says Kirkup, adding that, “You live with your co-founders, so it creates this environment where all you do is work.”

It also helped them overcome the same problem they’re trying to solve – to turn a concept into something that can be manufactured.

“The entire country runs on instant messenger, so I would be able to IM somebody at the factory, get them to build something and it arrives the next day, and for peanuts in comparison” to Canada, Almeida says.

The experience just reinforced the Voltera team’s commitment to build a product that quickly solves real problems for its customers.

“This entire technology started because of the problem that we had faced ourselves, over and over again,” he says. “We want to make people’s lives better and easier.”

Voltera is not the first Waterloo Region startup to be accepted to HAXLR8R. Velocity has placed at least one company into four of the accelerator’s last six cohorts, including Palette, which makes snap-together software controllers, and MaxMixology, which is developing a machine to easily mix cocktails.

“We’ve had a lot of our companies go to a lot of accelerator programs – outside of ours – and it’s something that we’re open about and we’re more than happy for them for them to try those things,” Kirkup says.

He credits the technical strength of Velocity startups for making them so attractive to these world-class accelerators.

Since Voltera returned to the region in November 2014, there have been questions about what’s next for the company.

“Our focus is on rapid prototyping of circuit boards for right now,” Almeida says.

But with the conductive ink industry expected to explode in the next couple of years, further advancement could lead to Voltera ‘s machines printing higher-quality boards that can be used in final products.

Almeida says people have also been asking when Voltera is moving to Silicon Valley.

“This community has been incredibly supportive to us, and so if we are going to be anywhere, it’s going to be here and it’s going to be in China,” he says.

Aside from support from the ecosystem, he credits programs like SR&ED (Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program) among reasons why “Canada is a good place to build things.”

“We’ve only been able to stay afloat because of the provincial and federal government and the grants that we’ve received,” Almeida says.

This seems to fit with the broader trend towards “reshoring,” in which manufacturers “are bringing back manufacturing to North America, instead of going to Asia,” he says. For Canada, this means jobs and protection of intellectual property.

For Waterloo Region, this resurgence in hardware and manufacturing means coming full-circle and returning to our industrial roots.

“You go back five years ago – the Foundry – nobody would have ever thought of doing something like that,” Almeida says.

Kirkup says a variety of factors have led to the surge in hardware startups, including the demonstration of demand for devices through platforms like Kickstarter, and the ability to build prototypes more cheaply than ever before.

He adds that the technology world has evolved to a point where people are less willing to pay for software on its own, but will pay for software-driven devices.

“Many of our companies are building successful hardware companies today and actually using software business models, like recurring revenue,” Kirkup says.

Hardware companies skipped a generation as software and its large profit margins became the focus, but that’s no longer the case, according to Kirkup.

“The opportunities are so large and so convincing and so interesting in hardware now, that we are building these venture-scale companies again.”

Top photo: Voltera’s co-founders (left to right):  James Pickard, Jesus Zozaya, Katarina Ilic and Alroy Almeida.