Essays/linkedin/24-04-29 open hardware

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🔓 Have you already heard about Open Hardware? It's an intriguing movement that is taking a foothold across disciplines, but where can it lead to?

Open Hardware is the physical space counterpart to the open source software movement. Design files of tools are released openly and licensed in a way anybody can modify and build upon.

In some academic circles, releasing open-hardware tools became a practice to increase impact and reproducibility. After all, in principle, you want people to build on what you've developed.

Sadly, scholars have focused too much on the "cheap" nature of open hardware. Many projects tried to be substitutes of commercially available tools instead of innovative solutions. That focus may have derailed the appreciation for open hardware, since the results were hacky and under-performant.

Fortunately the view on open hardware is rapidly changing. Value is placed in the community gathering around common tools and in the underserved possibilities.

A conference I attended last year opened my eyes to how open tools can address problems in the global south. Sometimes it's not a matter of price, but on the insanely long delivery times, burdens on imports, and lack of support.

An open tool can be manufactured locally. Technicians learn how to assemble and maintain what they are building. Perhaps it's not even cheaper than bulk-producing in a factory, but it is certainly more accessible and sustainable.

At the same conference, however, I heard too often the messianic approach of "we make this cheap because that's what's needed in poorer countries." That's, however, a discussion for another day.

Today we even have companies built on the commercialization of open hardware. From Arduino to Seeedstudio, from Open Trons to Open Ephys.

Compared to most open source software companies, which sell services associated to the tools they've developed, hardware companies have access to a more traditional business model. They can sell products, just as any non-open hardware company.

I always wondered if it's the open nature of Arduino responsible for their success or whether it's rooted mostly in the fact that it's a well designed tool, with a well designed ecosystem, addressing an underserved market. As a counter-example, Raspberry Pi is also a very successful company but their boards are not open.

Open hardware is also emerging at companies that don't commercialize physical tools. For example, @Arcadia released an open microscope to read phenotypes. It's a tool they developed for their own purposes, and decided to share with a broader community.

I believe that, for science-based companies, the open hardware movement will become fundamental to attract talents.

Open software already has that role: It's not a coincidence that Facebook, Google, etc. maintained large projects that don't directly impact their business (React, and Angular respectively) but that act as magnets for the talent they needed. It's marketing for the job market.

Working at a company that maintains an open project means you can showcase your work. You get a sense of belonging to a larger community. It may be an interesting way to lower the barrier for people making the transition out of academia.

I believe we are at the brink of seeing a proliferation of open hardware arising both from academic labs as well as companies. It'll lead to very interesting interactions and discussions.

The economic impact of open hardware in a commercial setting is still poorly understood. We can try to draw some parallels from software, but the unit economics are so radically different that I wonder how far can we actually extrapolate.

In academia, most funding agencies don't contemplate open hardware as a strategy for valorizing research. Tech transfer is rooted in patents and licensing. Even if renamed as knowledge-transfer, the metrics most of them use are plainly antiquated. How can society benefit from academic progress when innovations are locked in?

The idea of transferring knowledge out of an academic lab is to increase the impact of publicly funded research, increasing the overall economic performance of society.

Today, releasing tools openly is seen as a destruction of the ability to commercialize them. Talking about open hardware creates tension between teach transfer officers, researchers, entrepreneur, and investors. There can be intermediate approaches, with licenses that become open after a given embargo time (shorter than what patents provide, and in line with faster-pace progress).

Open-Hardware is an interesting movement, but it's not a panacea.

It's easy to make grandiose claims about how everything will be different once things are released openly.

However, economic incentives in the academic industry do not necessarily align with the principles that open hardware tries to embrace. It's much more common to find a project building from scratch that building on other projects. There is no incentive to maintain a project once it was released, and there is no incentive to contribute to an existing project.

That's why I get enthusiastic about hearing companies that start releasing open hardware tools, even if they are not their main economic activity. Having people working with different incentives may end up tilting the balance.

I'm preparing a lengthier article on Open Hardware (the link to the notes is in the comments).

-- 👋 Hi! I'm @Aquiles.

I'm a scientist turned entrepreneur. I share insights on the challenges of #scipreneurship

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