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Kickstarter is cultivating terrific product designers… who might not know what they’re doing

Twine sensor kickstarter project

It was almost a year ago that I backed my first Kickstarter project, Twine, a “wireless square with sensors and a simple web app to set rules.” Theoretically, I could stick one on my back door and tell it to text me when my kids open the back door around 2:27 p.m.

Twine was funded with $556,541 versus its $35,000 goal.

Winter came and went, flowers bloomed everywhere, I co-wrote and published a book, and my family had a nice vacation in Hawaii. Still no sign of Twine.

Then I switched gears and backed a very low tech venture, Little Bonsai’s The Clip. It promised to be my “capable and dependable daily companion sporting a whole range of different functions.”

Think of a flat, steel bottle opener that goes on your key ring, and you get the general idea. Somehow in my excitement over crowdfunding, The Clip seemed so enticing I ordered four of them.

It turned out that the clips were too inflexible to be nearly as useful as I had hoped, but at least Little Bonsai delivered.

The Clip by Little Bonsai kickstarter project crowd fundedI also backed the decidedly low tech Unfolding Tree (as in Christmas), and it arrived in time to make the journey to Vermont.

The score so far: Low Tech 2, High Tech 0.

Next came two more sensor projects. The first was Ninja Blocks, which is “controlled with ‘if this then that’ style tasks and connects your things to the web.” It’s pretty similar to Twine, except that the sensor has a weird little stick figure on the prototype version.

Back in March they were funded with $102,935 versus a $24,000 goal. You guessed it – no sign yet of Ninja Blocks.

Finally, during the late summer I backed the big daddy of all Kickstarter sensor projects, Smart Things. Their summary reads like God’s job description, “Adding intelligence to everyday things in your world, so that your life can be more awesome.”

Smart Things attracted a whopping $1.2 million. In fairness, it’s been less than two months since they took my money, but the trend continues: no sign of the new sensors.

SmartThings sensor kickstarter crowdfunding projectDon’t get me wrong; I still love the idea of individuals backing other individuals, and of innovation moving faster outside companies than it does inside them. But the cold, hard reality of this admittedly small sample is that innovation often moves slower at Kickstarter’s tech projects than it does in the corporate world.

It’s obviously a lot easier to make a three-minute Kickstarter video about cool new sensors than it is to make cool new sensors. But that’s likely only one aspect of this problem.

With crowdfunded projects, no one vets the entrepreneurs. Since most of us only put $10 to perhaps $300 at risk, many people probably don’t take the time to check into the entrepreneurs’ backgrounds, or to investigate whether any real companies are already making what the Kickstarter project creator proposes to “invent.”

Visualight wifi light bulbFor example, Visualight, which just last week passed its $27,500 Kickstarter goal, proposes to make “an open-source Wi-Fi enabled light bulb that can visualize data as colored light.”

To my eye, this project looks awfully similar to Ambient Devices’ Energy Orb.

A few months ago I spoke to their CEO, Pritesh Gandhi, who explained that years ago this device was his firm’s first product, originally called the Ambient Orb. The company built and sold over “one million units” of devices that display what Pritesh calls glanceable data, before realizing that the best way to make money in this space was to license its technology rather than act as a manufacturer.

On the surface, Ambient Devices is years ahead of Visualight, not just in terms of actually knowing how to make glanceable data devices, but also in terms of actually running a business.

My guess is that most of the hundreds of people who backed Visualight have never heard of Ambient Devices.

I’d like to think that those of us who back Kickstarter projects are smart, forward thinking and ahead of our time. But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that worries there are too few checks and balances in this space, and that it is far too easy for entrepreneurs to overpromise and get in over their heads.

True Kickstarter fans – or entrepreneurs from any of the projects described here – please feel free to reassure me.

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.