By Dave Fidlin | Aug 08, 2022
Customized smart sensors
BeBop Sensors is the outgrowth of McMillen's other current business venture: KMI, or Keith McMillen Instruments. Much of McMillen's professional background and entrepreneurial pursuits have revolved around music and sound, and a more recent innovation helped plant the seed for what eventually became BeBop Sensors.
"I needed a type of sensor that didn't exist," McMillen explains. "It was something to go around the stick of a violin bow to understand the riff of the musician. All of the sensors out there would not conform to the shape."
In the years leading up to BeBop Sensors' spinout from KMI, McMillen discovered people in a cross-section of industries were interested in the product in the hope of meeting their own needs.
"A bunch of people, not music-related, started approaching us about sensors," McMillen says. "These included medical, robotics, and exoskeleton. We advanced the fabric performance even further and started making sensors for medical companies and automotive companies."
The company's core operations are out of a 7,500-square-foot manufacturing facility in Berkeley, where 3D printers, computer-controlled machines, and related equipment produce limited quantities of company products. A contract manufacturer in the Midwest completes the process of making customized products for BeBop Sensors' customers.
In its first few years as a standalone operation, business was brisk at BeBop Sensors. As is the case with so many companies and industries, however, COVID-19 was disruptive. This was especiallytrue within BeBop Sensors, which had been ramping up its virtual reality technology.
"COVID was difficult, but we kept everyone on," McMillen reflects. "Ironically, it's almost impossible to sell virtual reality hardware virtually. You have to demonstrate in the room with the people. But the company [has] bounced back."
In its brief existence, sales performance has been a winding road of peaks and valleys, McMillen says, though he is upbeat about the terrain ahead.
"It's been up and down," McMillen continues. "It took us a while to find our solutions base. We had a lot of success early on, but they were in industries that were very difficult for a small company to be victorious in. It was very competitive with long sales cycles."
More recently, BeBop Sensors has made entries into two of the largest growth markets -- health monitoring and robotics -- which McMillen says has brought an uptick in overall business. To date, the company has achieved 33 patents, which McMillen says is the result of a relentless commitment to technology and innovation.
"Our intellectual property is quite valuable. We've spent seven figures to protect our technology," he says. "We have just a huge software library because we’ve developed so many things over the years. We have a lot of skill in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which allows us to interpret the data that is used from our sensors. Taken together, it's a formidable system that has sufficient depth to give people answers to questions about the interactions of their equipment or robots in its environment."
For all of its innovation, McMillen says there is one tried and true -- and seemingly old fashioned -- practice that will remain a key part of the company's business model in the years ahead.
"It's still nice to have face-to-face interactions with customers," he explains. "I had gone a year without seeing a customer's face. The ability to actually meet humans and interact with them beyond a Zoom call is coming back. We think it is an important part of any business relationship."
Challenges: Two of the most widespread, overarching issues currently facing manufacturers --staffing and supply chain bottlenecks -- are top-of-mind for McMillen and other company leaders. "It's a tough environment for hiring," he notes as he ponders future labor needs.
Since BeBop Sensors is reliant on a number of intricate parts for its products, the cost and availability of procuring the items has given McMillen pause.
Speaking to the chip shortage, McMillen says, "It's tragic; it's almost post-apocalyptic. It's hard to just pass that cost on to the customer. That's a problem that everyone shares that has an electronic-based product or service. It's a constant scramble."
Opportunities: In particular, McMillen says he sees abundant opportunity ahead across all areas of the health industry. "That market is just going to be huge," he adds.
In terms of diagnosing specific conditions, McMillen says BeBop Sensors can play a role in the process through this scenario: "Using technology, guided with sensor data, people can understand with great accuracy, without having to be invasive with cameras."
Needs: BeBop Sensors underwent a Series A round of venture capital funding four years ago. McMillen says plans are in motion to seek a Series B round with the company’s upward trajectory in mind. "A fast-growing technology company consumes cash," he continues. "We reinvest everything we make."
The infusion of additional cash, he adds, will enable BeBop Sensors to continue customizing its products to meet the bespoke needs of its customers, many of which are much larger in size.
"It's an interesting ocean where a few well-cultivated ideas become extremely valuable to large companies that have everything else in place but need that next generation," McMillen says.