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Retro Chic: The IoT Means Hardware Engineers Are Cool Again

Retro Chic: The IoT Means Hardware Engineers Are Cool Again

In the beginning there were Military Engineers who built bridges and designed fortifications. When peacetime came, some headed to dig in the mines and others to build roads, canals and cities. For the first 50 years of the 19th century, engineers came in five basic flavors: Military, Mining, and Civil, and with the rise of steam, Naval and Railroad.

In those same 50 years, however, the world began to mechanize–everything from cotton gins and reapers to textile mills and firearms. The force in this new world was the “mechanic,” a craftsman, businessman and America’s first technology entrepreneur. Connecticut Yankees like Eli Whitney dazzled their countrymen and became rock stars.

Then things changed. By mid-century craft shops had become huge, complex factories. The need for advanced math, science and understanding of the material world grew. Making things was important, but the world needed people who could guide the technology of machine production. In 1862, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute inaugurated a course in something called “mechanical engineering.” Less than 20 years later the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was organized and, with the development of a magical force called electricity, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers was founded a short time later. By WWI, a third key player in the Industrial Revolution, Chemical Engineers, had emerged to advance the science and design of materials. The new rock stars of the technology-entrepreneur world had become Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineers, and this would be true for much of the 20th century. (My apologies here to the Biomedical, Metallurgical, Environmental, Petroleum, Nuclear, Aerospace, etc. engineering folks. Your numbers are smaller but contributions are mighty as well.)

For the last 15 or 20 years, we have all witnessed another revolution. The top of the entrepreneurial/technology pyramid is now firmly occupied by the Software Engineer.

In the same way that mechanization ate the world for 150 years, software is eating our modern world. Of course, the older engineering disciplines have remained essential, but the rise of the Web has created the newest batch of international rock stars.

Now, we’re in for another change. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT), and it’s getting a lot of buzz. (Walter Dick wrote about it here and Luke Burns here.  Ascent hosted an IoT event in October here.)  The IoT is often defined in consumer terms (see here); Re/code’s Walt Mossberg said the broad idea “is that a whole constellation of inanimate objects is being designed with built-in wireless connectivity, so that they can be monitored, controlled and linked over the Internet via a mobile app.” But investors recognize that everything from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and distribution will be impacted by the IoT.

What’s important from the perspective of someone interested in engineering or entrepreneurship is that the top of the engineering pyramid is about to get crowded. IoT is still about the Web, but it’s also about “Things.” Things have to look good or hide well, sense accurately, work seamlessly with human beings, machines and each other, stand up to harsh environments, and last. Things can’t break when they’re dropped or stop working when they’re out of sight. And things have to be cheap this year, and smaller, sexier and cheaper next year.

This, of course, is the old world of the Mechanical, Chemical and Electrical Engineer. And this is now the new world where material, power and electrical sciences will compete again with soft- and firmware for a prime seat at the table of innovation. Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist made the case for what might happen in Silicon Valley:

The balance of Valley power will shift. Social-media giants such as Twitter and Facebook will look like old dowagers. New giants will emerge at speed to displace them in the public imagination…Intelligent devices will provide the Valley with a new-found seriousness. Social-media companies essentially dealt with virtual candy-floss: nice to have but, for the most part, hardly essential. The new generation of entrepreneurs will deal in devices that can save lives.

For folks looking to launch technology businesses in New England, this is a return to roots. From the 19th century Connecticut Yankee to the 20th century Route 128 Technology Highway, the region has a 200 year tradition of academic leadership, mechanical, materials and electrical genius, and hardware excellence. By 2020, there are estimated to be 26 billion “things” that will have to work well. New England companies will play a profound role in that revolution.

Of course, the Software guys and gals aren’t going anywhere. They need to be at the forefront of this revolution as well and continue to generate their fair share of rock stars. But the rebalancing of disciplines that the IoT promises will mean an explosion of opportunity for engineers of all kinds, and for entrepreneurs with visions that see clearly in both the virtual and physical worlds.

Eric B. Schultz is a Venture Partner and Executive Chairman of HubCast, an Ascent company using the IoT to revolutionize the traditional print world. He is also the former CEO of Sensitech, an IoT company before anyone knew what the IoT was.

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