Published 23rd November 2015

VCC alumnus startup closes successful crowdfunding campaign

Imperial College London student startup BLOCKS, Venture Catalyst Challenge alumnus company, has successfully raised more than $1.6 million (£1m) on crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

BLOCKS, the world's first modular smartwatch, began as an idea from co-founders Serge Didenko and Alireza Tahmaseb, from Imperial's Department of Bioengineering.

"We were initially working on a gesture control wristband but decided to add more features to it", Alireza said in a two-part video interview with Imperial Create Lab and Innovaitons (below), "I was more interested in gesture control, contactless payments, cellular connectivity and Serge was more interested in health and sports applications.

"But you cannot simply put all these features into one device because of the price point and size limitation: there was no other answer other than modularity."

The two began designing prototypes and bringing in friends and colleagues to the project. Around the same time, they applied for the 2014 edition of the Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC).

"[The VCC] was very good for us because it gave us an end goal to make a product" said Serge.

However, the VCC's six weeks were not enough to make a product. Instead, the team created a video and an enlarged prototype to demonstrate their technology and business idea.

"We used 3D printing and headphone jacks to make up a module" continued Serge, "even though it didn't look good as a watch, people could really understand [modularity] in a better way."

The video was a success online, garnering more than 45,000 views in two weeks and getting covered by large tech publications such as Wired and TechCrunch. That, said Serge, was when they realised they had a potential business on their hands.

So, did the VCC help?

"VCC is great in the way that it makes you think by lean methodology", said Serge, "you need to go understand your users and find out what they want."

Lean methodology is an approach to business management that centres focusing on the immediate needs of a business, setting gradual milestones, and building early relationships with potential customers. This is a system that BLOCKS continued to follow after their participation in the VCC.

The team has entered several competitions and showcases in order to keep themselves motivated. These include Intel's Make It Wearable Challenge, the Duke of York's Pitch @ Palace pitching event, as well as the Consumer Electronics Show in the USA. If there were no events, they would create deadlines, by setting meetings with potential partners and inventors.

BLOCKS has also been growing a community around the smartwatch to ensure they build a product: it began with over 100 interviews during the VCC; later, after being put in contact with experts from Berkley Entrepreneurship lab (thanks to Imperial Create Lab), they were challenged to complete 100 pre-sales; now, through Kickstarter, the team has been responding to backers' questions and updating them on new modules and partnerships.

The BLOCKS community has now reached the 100,000 mark, which might be a partial explanation as to how the crowdfunding campaign was fully funded with $250,000 in 56 minutes. From the initial VCC team of 5, they have over 15 people working on the product full-time at the Imperial Incubator.

"The team is made of hardware engineers, software engineers, product designers, graphic designers, marketing people, business people... making a hardware product requires a lot of different skills", said Alireza.

Looking forward, they will have $1.6 million to manufacture the first batch of BLOCKS. Announced stretch goals include better quality screens, metallic finishes, and partnerships with mobile networks AT&T and EE. The team hopes to make its first shipment in May 2016.

We wish them the best of luck and cannot wait to have our own BLOCKS one day.

View BLOCKS' Kickstarter campaign