108: Hardware Design Tips from Intel Leader | Product Startup

108: Hardware Design Tips from Apple & Intel Leader

January 6, 2022

With Kapil Kane, Director of Innovation at Intel

108: Hardware Design Tips from Apple & Intel Leader

Kapil Kane is the Director of Innovation at Intel and founded Intel’s internal hardware invention incubator. Prior to that he was a Product Design Lead and Manager at Apple. He is also a fellow keynote speaker, and he has done two TedX talks. Today Kapil is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, and small manufacturers can learn from how the biggest hardware companies in the world prioritize and qualify new invention ideas. He is even going to walk through the step-by-step pillars that all Intel incubator innovations go through to prepare their idea for market success.

Today you will hear us talk about:

  • Developing engineers to think in the business way
  • Think about the market value
  • Business model canvas
  • Look for assumptions in your plan
  • Identify pain points
  • Validation plan
  • Testing MVP / Prototypes
  • Customer discussions (get out of the building)
  • Financial case
  • You need to have a lot of conviction to the product you are building.
  • Think about solving problems, not saying it cannot be done
  • 3 things you need to succeed: Technology, User experience, Business model
  • In hardware, when pitching, don’t just talk, show what you have built
  • Are you coachable or not.

Product Startup
108: Hardware Design Tips from Apple & Intel Leader
With Kapil Kane, Director of Innovation at Intel

00:00 | Kevin Mako (KM): Hello product innovators. Today, we learn from a past design lead at Apple and current head of innovation at Intel how hardware startups should plan for product business success.

00:12 | Voice-over: You’re listening to the Product Startup podcast. The show that helps bring your product idea to life, by chatting with successful inventors, product developers, manufacturers, and hardware industry professionals. Our goal here is to get to the bottom of what makes a product successful, from initial idea to getting your product on store shelves. We’re taking you step by step to build a functional product and scale your product business. Hosted by Kevin Mako, one of North America’s leading experts on hardware development for small product businesses. Now, on to the show.

00:48 | KM: Welcome back everyone. Today, I’m very excited to introduce Kapil Kane to the show. Kapil is the director of innovation at Intel and founded Intel’s internal hardware invention incubator. Prior to that, he was the product design lead and manager at Apple.

01:01 | KM: He’s also a fellow keynote speaker; he’s on two TEDx talks. Today, Kapil’s going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, and small manufacturers can learn from how the biggest hardware companies in the world prioritize and qualify new invention ideas.

01:16 | KM: He’s even going to walk through the step-by-step pillars that Intel incubator innovations go through to prepare their idea for market success. Now, on to the episode. Hey Kapil, welcome to the show.

01:28 | Kapil Kane (KK): Hey, thanks. It’s nice to be here.

01:29 | KM: Well, we’re excited to have you on today to talk about both your experience being in the product development sphere in Apple and then now with Intel in their hardware development for your internal startups creating new innovative products with the Intel Core technology.

01:44 | KM: So it’s an incredible experience that you’ve got working for both of those companies, totally different types of design in each but fantastic experience to relay to our emerging startups who are looking to develop their products from the idea through to production, and then scaling it from there.

02:00 | KM: First and foremost, you’ve done two TEDx talks. Those are very different so kudos to you for those.

02:04 | KK: Thanks man.

02:05 | KM: I know they’ve got like such a serious structure. It’s like months to prepare and you’ve got to do it right, otherwise, it doesn’t make the cut and all this sort of stuff, right?

02:13 | KK: Yeah. The TEDx Shanghai used to be TEDx Shanghai women. So it’s like an all-woman’s team. And they were very serious. They had coaches, they had speed coaches. We had lots of dry runs. We had, I think, check-ins every two weeks for three months.

02:31 | KK: So they really got us prepared very well. Yeah. But at that time I was almost thinking about whether I should drop out, it’s like too much time commitment. But I think it helped me in the long run. Yeah.

02:44 | KM: Yeah. That’s amazing. Well, congrats for pulling that off, that’s quite cool. Can you give us your background before that?

02:49 | KK: Thanks.

02:49 | KM: I gave a bit of a brief one earlier. How did you get started in this world? And how did you end up in such an amazing position that you’re in today?

02:57 | KK: I grew up in India in a very small province called Goa, it’s like a beach town, very laid back. I happened to do my undergrad in engineering, in India itself. And I always liked to design cars and I got a job in Detroit.

03:13 | KK:  I worked at Johnson Controls doing interior designs, like seating systems and dashboards, and stuff like that. And in a couple of years, I found that to be a bit slow, that whole industry, the automotive industry. And I got into a Master’s and PhD program at Stanford in design. 

03:31 | KK: So I quit that job and came to the west coast. I did two internships at Apple during the summers. And on my third, actually, it was my second internship, we were working on this really amazing technology, which was the very first multitask screen.

03:48 | KK: And it was so exciting that I dropped out of my PhD program and carried on working at Apple. Sadly, we had to kill that product in a couple of years but that turned into iPhone. And I moved on to various things including, designing the world’s smallest mp3 player, the iPod Shuffle.

04:08 | KK: And then I soon moved to China to help design the MacBook Airs because we were designing the product as well as the manufacturing process at the same time. If you guys remember, MacBook Air was carved out of blocks of aluminum. It was a completely new manufacturing technique for us.

04:28 | KK: And we thought it’s better to have some designers in China making real-time decisions on a design by looking at the capabilities of the manufacturing. So I volunteered to move there, and I have been in China ever since. And about nine, 10 years ago, I left Apple to join Intel to design tablets after doing the iPad.

04:55 | KK: Everyone wanted to make tablets and Intel also wanted to make tablets. So I came in there to have a bigger responsibility because at Apple I was more mechanical product design, and at Intel I could do mechanical electrical software services, everything.

05:14 | KK: And then about five years ago, I co-founded this internal accelerator called GrowthX where we help our employees realize their ideas and find ways to turn them into actual products and businesses. Yeah. So that’s my story.

05:32 | KM: That’s amazing. So what are the differences that you see between designing great products that everybody knows today for Apple and the way that you’re designing internal innovations for Intel?

05:42 | KK: I think in a way I would say it was easier to design stuff at Apple because let’s say Johnny and his team would come up with this industrial design right, ID. And it was like we had to figure out how to turn that into an actual design product and the sky was the limit. So you could use any manufacturing process.

06:06 | KK: You could come up with very crazy designs. And we never ever thought of like bomb cost. We never thought of that as engineers or as product designers. We simply figured out how to realize this idea. And, of course, there is always back and forth.

06:30 | KK: But those conversations let’s say with Johnny you cannot just say, oh, I cannot do it because in the past I had done it. I don’t think it’s going to work. To say a negative thing you had to design multiple ways and show why it wouldn’t work. I have tried it now, these are the reasons, what do you think?

06:48 | KK: You couldn’t just say, oh, it’s not going to work. So if you say that it’s a sure-shot way to get your ass fired. So not by Johnny, because Johnny was a super nice guy. He was very soft-spoken. You should never be recognized as a guy who is not ready to jump when a challenge is in front of you. Right?

07:21 | KK: All of our roles were to figure out technically how to make something possible, either through design, manufacturing, assembly. In my current role at Intel what we do is build very basic technologies like chips, AI algorithms, different kinds of chips, CPUs, GPUs like FPGAs, neural computing.

07:49 | KK: So these are very fundamental technologies and there are infinite applications of these. And there are business units planning from the top down when they say I’m going to build this chip. And our products need huge investment, each fab costs 10 billion dollars, right?

08:10 | KK: So we have a lot of things. We have to plan way ahead and imagine where our chips and technologies are going to be used like two, three years down the line.

08:24 | KK: So what we are trying to do here is that we are looking at our core technologies like this chip and try to figure out what could be inorganic areas of growth for Intel using our current let’s say core technologies and do a little bit of work on top to open up completely new markets.

08:45 | KK: For example, if we use an ASIC in network processing, can we repurpose that for, let’s say, genome sequencing? And what could be the pain point it could solve? So it’s a lot of experimentation.

09:00 | KK: And so here you are looking at more uncertainties in business because in the technology we are more confident, but it’s the business side, where should be the investment? What should be the markets that we go to? What could be the product? Who could make the best benefit?

09:15 | KK: So it requires a different way of your development. And here we are mostly developing business. Whereas at Apple, we are doing pure product development, starting with your proto bills and design verification, engineering verification, production verification.

09:32 | KK: And that part was just a clear process, but it was a very innovative way to solve technical challenges. And in my current role it’s all about business uncertainties, and how do you look at your business model, look at your key assumptions?

09:53 | KK: And from that look, at what are the most critical assumptions, that if proven wrong your whole business falls apart. And how do you create tests to validate those businesses?

10:06 | KK: So even before you start prototyping, you can run tests to really figure out if you’re on the right track and then get rated based on your market feedback. So it’s like two completely different worlds, both are exciting and challenging but just require different skills. Yeah.

10:24 | KM: It sounds like your current role is very akin to what a lot of hardware startups, and even small established hardware manufacturers are doing as they develop their new product, as they’re thinking about their product.

10:35 | KM: Because really any inventor or any business that’s creating their next version of a product or whatever else is thinking about how does this succeed in the market? How do I make money off this? Where is the market? And can I fill it? And does Mike’s design match it?

10:49 | KM: Let’s get into talking about that, but before we get into kind of the tips and tricks that you’re seeing on the innovation side and how to apply that to understanding the business of the product to make sure the product actually succeeds?

10:59 | KM: I just want to talk a little bit about some of the value add that you saw designing for Apple. Because one of the things I heard you say, which I think is incredibly valuable for any hardware design team or engineers out there, is looking at finding a solution, not finding a problem.

11:15 | KM: And you really highlighted it. And I’ve heard us before from a number of different team members at Apple that you weren’t allowed to say, no. You could say no as long as you backed it up with how you think it could be solved and a solution.

11:29 | KM: And that solution-oriented thinking can be very powerful especially when you’re in mechanical engineering, but really at all levels of design, industrial design, mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, prototyping, production.

11:42 | KM: A lot of the time it’s easier for an engineer or a designer, or a developer to just say it can’t be done as opposed to saying, well, it can’t be done, and here’s why. And here’s how we think we can solve that problem. 

11:54 | KM: And it really sounds like I’ve heard this many times over, that was a big part of the culture at Apple. And, probably, a reason that a lot of these things that people say couldn’t be done, ended up being done and ended up being very successful products for Apple.

12:06 | KK: Exactly. But I think that you need to have a really good vision and conviction in the product you’re building. Okay? And you need to really believe in why you are building this, right? And you need like a visionary leader, like Steve Jobs. And you need a guy like Johnny to envision those products. Actually, it was like a cult at Apple.

12:38 | KK: Now it’s a huge company. When I was there it was like only 2000 people and Steve was our leader, whatever he said was true and we would all march; so I think that’s the reason we could. Now there is so much competition in the market. There’s so much democratization of everything.

13:03 | KK: So I think in this day and age you need to be a little more iterative when you’re designing things, especially if you’re creating new devices. Right? Look at how many completely new computing; let’s say devices or solutions have gotten very big. Because let’s say at the time what was Apple doing? Laptops, desktops, then came iPod, then iPhone, iPad.

13:41 | KK: And since then there has been the Apple Watch, and maybe the HomePod or something. But there has been nothing new since I left Apple, let’s say 10 years ago. So what it says is that there is an explosion of technologies in the technology sphere, right?

14:00 | KK: Like people talk about AR, VR, autonomous driving, this and that, but these are all like tech buzzwords. But why have you not seen all these things from Apple? It’s because just having technology doesn’t actually make for a great product. To have a great product you need three things.

14:50 | KK: You of course need solid technology. You need the right user experience that solves a real problem for the user. And finally, you can make a business out of it. And so a lot of these things are just promises. Like even if you look at the AR headsets, VR headsets, they are not flowing off the shelves.

14:06 | KK: So I think we still need to find out what those killer applications are. And when the time will come, it’ll come, you know? That’s why I think now you need to do more iterative design.

15:06 | KK: Because when I was advising a startup that was doing augmented reality glasses, and at this point, they were trying to go too much into detail of the design. And I was trying to tell them, just go out, test the market, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t try to figure all of the small details out.

15:25 | KK: The key is to go fast, learn and iterate, right? So I think that I would say is the difference now. And I’m pretty sure Apple is iterating like crazy. Just look at the project Apollo, the autonomous driving car, it’s been on and off. The talks about AR on and off. It’s not easy, you know? Yeah.

15:45 | KM: Yeah. I love the fact that you mentioned the iterative design. It’s something I’m very passionate about and something that’s really important to startups. One of the things that we say, and you kind of mentioned it there, a design model that we have at our hardware design firm Mako Design is brilliantly simple design.

15:59 | KM: And that is very important for especially a startup for their first product to not go too feature crazy, to not go too deep into the details or try and push the boundaries of all these technologies too far. Stick to your core one or two amazing features that you’ve done, and do those really well. 

16:16 | KM: And plan to iterate down the road. You’re going to go to market with that. That’s going to be your launch product, make sure it’s, of course, of good quality. That’s why, as well, you want to shrink the number of features so you can spend more money ensuring that the quality of the features that you are putting to market is top-notch.

16:31 | KM: And then be expected to get feedback from your customers and your prospective customers. Your customers who bought it are going to tell you things about it that you didn’t really think about or didn’t understand fully.

16:40 | KM: And then the customers who didn’t buy, those are your prospective customers, are also going to tell you some things, and that is where your opportunity is going to come to think about iterating and Apple’s doing it. Every year they come out with a new iPhone.

16:53 | KM: If the biggest product company in the world with the biggest budget is iterating, then a hardware startup should think about iteration too knowing that you can’t perfect it on your first version, but you want to come out with a great quality product because for hardware you can’t do a bug fix for it.

17:08 | KM: There’s no patch for hardware. So you really want to make sure your reviews are solid on your first launch. So keep it simple.

17:18 | KM: The interesting thing about so much of this web data these days, too, is you can start to hone in over time to see how far people are moving down the page before they actually buy your product, or are they leaving at a certain point on your page?

16:30 | KM: So the nice thing about these modular designs of a sales funnel landing page or sales page is that this data can give you very key insights on each of your sections. Say, okay, this section is doing well and guiding people further down the page or converting them to a sale.

16:46 | KM: Or this section is doing poorly, people don’t like it and they’re leaving when they get to this section. Maybe you need to reorder the sections, maybe you need to rewrite them, or maybe you need to add different content or whatever it might be.

16:56 | KM: But I even think about services like Hotjar, which can actually show you heat mapping of precisely where people are moving the mouse down your page. What words are they highlighting? Where are they clicking? Where are they spending some time?

17:08 | KM: There’s no patch for hardware. So you really want to make sure your reviews are solid on your first launch. So keep it simple.

17:15 | KM: And the other thing that I wanted to highlight that you mentioned that I think is very powerful to any product startup, it’s a little on the fluffier side, but we’ve seen it work time and time again, it’s the owners’ or the inventors’ passion for their product.

17:27 | KM: And you mentioned that in Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive, folks who you worked for you saw how dedicated they were, how much they believed in the product that they were building. If you’re a small inventor, you can have the same passion that they did. You can have belief in your product.

17:42 | KM: And most, from what I see, especially at our hardware design firm when you finally come up with that brilliant idea, that once in a lifetime light bulb that goes off and you’ve actually seen something that can solve a real pain point in some piece of the world, in some part of humanity, you generally become very passionate about it fairly quickly.

18:02 | KM: But that passion is what really pushes it forward. And that’s what gets you over those hurdles. And I think that’s what a lot of what drove that culture at Apple to overcome obstacles as opposed to dwelling on them because everybody was following the shining star that they all believed in unanimously as a team together.

18:18 | KM: Now let’s carry this forward. I think it’s a good segue into what you’re doing now, working kind of on the opposite side where you’re taking technologies and figuring out how to innovate. And that’s very akin to what people are doing with their invention ideas.

18:32 | KM: They’ve come up with some idea. Now they’re trying to figure out how to actually execute on that to create value, to make a product. What is the process?

18:39 | KM: And you kind of highlighted it at a high level. Let’s go into the details of the process that you are using at an Intel through your accelerator to vet the quality, not only of the product but of the market success of that product.

18:51 | KM: Because you’re doing both things at the same time, which is absolutely what every inventor should be thinking about on their product too. It’s not just about the idea that you’ve come up with. The passion also needs to be in how are you going to create a business?

19:02 | KM: Or how are you going to monetize that? Or how is an eventual acquirer of your product going to monetize your product down the road? Because that’s where the value is.

19:10 | KK: Yeah. So what we do we run a startup accelerator, like let’s say Y Combinator or 500 Startups. We do two cohorts in a year and each cohort will have like five to six projects. And to get into this cohort we have like a Shark Tank kind of a thing where the internal teams, employees would come with ideas.

19:41 | KK: And in some cases, even external startups, if they have a very aligned kind of strategy or vision. So we also have a bootcamp before the teams pitch the idea on the selection day, where we work to turn their business case into a very crisp five-minute pitch.

20:07 | KK: And so like 10 to 20 teams will come in, pitch in front of a jury and we’ll pick five. And then they get into our accelerator, which is a four-month program. And we have eight sprints, and we call them business sprints. And the very first sprint will start with a business model canvas.

20:27 | KK: So every project has to put their idea in a very typical strategizer’s business model canvas, where you look at what are your value propositions? What is your customer segment? What is the value proposition for each of the segments? Then what are your cost structures?

20:47 | KK: What are your channels? All of this stuff. And we look at that business model canvas every week. And maybe the second sprint is looking at your biggest assumptions on that canvas, if they were false your business falls apart.

21:03 | KK: Then we design a plan called validation plan where we figure out how we are going to verify, validate, or invalidate those assumptions. And then we do something called a market research hackathon where we kick the guys out of the building.

21:20 | KK: We say, get out of the building and go talk to the customers, come back with the real-life data, and so on. And we do financial modeling, a business case, and finally your business page with which we then bring it back to the management of China to ask for a bigger round of funding. So it’s like getting VC funding.

21:44 | KK: And during our accelerator, we also give them seed money, just like how a Y Combinator would give 50k, 100k, and then they go and raise like millions, a million dollar, $2 million, $5 million to go big with the idea once they have validated the business case and can show it, right?

22:03 | KK: And we run this outside of Intel actually by design because we want these guys to feel like they are entrepreneurs. We call them CEOs, CTOs, CMOs, and we have the mentor network. 

22:21 | KK: And we also have this very cool thing called experts in residents, who are entrepreneurs who have built businesses, who will every week spend one hour, one on one with each team to challenge what they’re doing and to point them in the right direction.

22:35 | KK: So that’s the process we follow. And at the end of these four months, maybe in a year out of 10, maybe we get two or three that create an adjacent product for us, which drives like millions of dollars of revenues. Yeah

22:56 | KM: That’s a really amazing program to have internally within Intel. Very cool. Let’s talk about those who essentially win the prize, those who get the funding to go on, what differentiated those folks from the ones who didn’t?

23:09 | KM: What really makes the winners win because this is a very in-depth model that you look at, very professionally done and laid out. I think a lot of hardware startups listening can think about this and apply it to their own inventions and their own ideas as to how would you pitch if you were to get five minutes as a hardware startup?

23:28 | KM: Or even if you’re an established company listening, and you’re developing your next product, how would you be pitching this and winning on all of the pillars that the pill would be looking for on all of those eight sprints that you do in the bootcamp? So what are the things that lead to the winners?

23:46 | KK: So yeah, I think, well, definitely you have the five-minute business pitch, right, in that you need to show, what is the pain point you’re trying to solve? Or what’s the opportunity? How big is the opportunity? Why you? Why are you the one to do this? Why this time? And what is in it for Intel, for example?

24:09 | KK: Or for example, if it’s an investor, what is in it for the investor? That means, what is the return, or how fast is your business growing? So that’s one thing. In all of that, what we see is, first of all, what has the team done so far? Are they just talking, or they have built something, right? So that’s something. That’s the second thing.

24:31 | KK: Even better is you are not just talking, you have built something, and you also understand the market well, like how big this market could be, who has a pain point. And even better is that you have maybe done some pilot with a potential customer.

24:47 | KK: Or, actually, you got this request from the field or from the market to build this product, right. So it shows that need, it shows you are passionate. And one of the things, because it’s an accelerator, we also see whether these guys are coachable or not.

25:04 | KK: Because a lot of times we have brilliant techies who come in very senior, but they’re just not coachable. So it doesn’t end well for either us or the other guys. Sometimes some people just want some money to build the product and that’s where they focus.

25:22 | KK: And in our accelerator, we don’t talk about anything about technology, being technical. We simply focus on the business and we believe in whatever they say about the product they’re building or whatever development they’re doing. Yeah. So that’s it. Like one of the challenges is, I mean, talk is cheap, ideas are dime a dozen.

25:46 | KK: It’s what you do with it. If you show people what you’ve done, what you’ve tried, even if it failed, I think that’s what shows your passion, right? So in the end, your solution might be temporary but the passion you have to solve that problem, if that is long then you can back that entrepreneur because he’ll find ways to solve the problem.

26:09 | KK: There are guys who come in because they’re in love with their solution. Even if they don’t find a problem to fix with their solution, they still keep trying to move their solution forward. And those are the kind of things we try to avoid. Yeah.

26:25 | KM: Kapil, that’s very powerful information. And I think anybody listening to this should really think about that in terms of their own product and their own product business and utilize the tips that you’ve said today to try and make the best pitch if or when they’re pitching to investors.

26:40 | KM: Whether it’s in the early stages as you’ve got just a prototype or you’re going to your first market with crowdfunding, or whether you’re scaling it and trying to get investment for growth, all these investors look for those very things.

26:51 | KM: Coachability is one of the big ones that we hear about a lot and is one of the quick fail points for somebody with a phenomenal business plan, phenomenal product, but they fail on getting the investing because they were deemed as uncoachable.

27:04 | KM: And that’s something that you have to self-reflect on and think honestly about yourself and get real feedback and listen to that feedback. More important than anything else is, do you have the ability to work with some of these seasoned experts?

27:18 | KM: Because, generally, when you’re pitching, you’re pitching to somebody who’s has been there, done that. And they want to know that you have the ability to understand and learn the best from them to apply to your business model.

27:30 | KM: And that’s so powerful when it comes to any investment level, whether it’s your first angel round at 50 grand or whether it’s a Series A at multimillions, it’s important to remember that coachability element. Kapil, look, thanks so much for all your tips today. I appreciate you joining us on the show, and we’ll look forward to talking soon.

27:49 | KK: Absolutely. You’re welcome. And it was nice to talk to you and share this with your listeners.

27:54 | KM: I appreciate it. Take care.

27:55 | KK: You too.

27:56 | Voice-over: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Product Startup podcast. The show that teaches you what it really takes to bring your product to market and turn it into a big success. This podcast series is brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, the original and leading firm in North America to provide global caliber end-to-end physical consumer product development to startups, inventors, and small product business clients. If you’re looking for product development help on your invention, head over to makodesign.com. That’s M-A-K-O design.com, for a free consultation from one of MAKO Design’s, four design studios from coast to coast. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


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