By Glen Martin | Oct 04, 2021
San Francisco, California
Design, prototyping, and manufacturing of high-tech devices
Swope started out as a design consultant for a medical device company. His experience was a cautionary one, in that it taught him even worthy ideas can flounder -- sometimes with severe consequences.
"I watched a product go through several clinical trials, obtain pre-approval, and then fail to raise a last round of funding, forcing the company to shut down," says Swope, a mechanical engineer who earned his master's at Stanford. "But following that, the CEO introduced me to other people who needed consultants. After a while I got so busy, I had to hire some folks to help me out."
That ultimately led to Swope Design Solutions, a San Francisco-based firm that specializes in the design, prototyping, and manufacturing of high-tech devices. Swope's early experience of watching a good product fail due to late-stage funding shortfalls convinced him to make his own business as bulletproof as possible.
"I understood we needed to have a full-service shop and R&D lab, and that we had to be thoroughly involved with every step of the process," says Swope. "Otherwise, we'd waste both time and money. I try to keep things fairly flat by maintaining reasonably low management and overhead, and emphasizing a culture of ownership, self-management, and internal motivation."
Swope also looks for engineers and support staff who have broad backgrounds.
"We prefer people who have a diversity of experience rather than being deeply immersed in a particular specialty," he says. "Our work covers a broad spectrum, and that sometimes forces us to jump into a new area and go deep immediately. So, we need people who can adapt and learn quickly rather than people who've mastered all the minutiae of a single subject but have trouble moving beyond that."
Swope Design Solutions differs from its competitors in some basic ways, says Swope.
"We're a service-based business as opposed to a concept or idea business," he says. "I'm not interested in growth for the simple sake of growth. I'm interested in supporting a great team, doing intentional and stellar work, and making our clients happy."
Swope's portfolio runs the gamut from medical devices to 3D printers. All the designs share certain characteristics: efficacy, elegance, and compactness to the degree allowed by function. Density and balance are hallmarks of Swope designs.
"If I had to think of a project that was emblematic of what we do, I think it'd be 'smart' jewelry that we developed on our consumer electronics side," Swope says. "It was a ring that connects wirelessly to your mobile phone and sends notifications via vibration and light -- different signals for text, emails, calls, and so forth. The crux of the challenge was that it had to be a very tight package capable of sophisticated functions. We had to fit an iPhone level of integration into a ring that you could wear on your finger."
Swope Design Solutions is a small shop, but it recapitulates the density of its work in its concentration of staff talent. Swope's engineers are restless and highly innovative, and they are always seeking new challenges and applications for their skills.
"We're very excited about incubating our own products," says Swope. "Much of what we do is developing products -- like medical devices -- for other people. But we have the expertise to develop our own lines, so we've been noodling new concepts in the consumer products space."
Swope also wants to develop technologies that can -- quite literally -- save the world.
"I'm interested in any project that reduces the impact of our species on the planet," says Swope. "That includes clean energy and carbon sequestration. Those technologies are under development, but the big question is whether they can scale. We want to help find ways to do that."
Sustainable food production is another issue that engages Swope.
"We want to find solutions to problems such as overfishing and agricultural impacts," Swope says, "and hydroponics and vertical farming (growing crops under natural and artificial light in temperature-controlled buildings) are areas we'd really like to investigate. It seems silly to burn a lot of dinosaurs to fly strawberries from Chile when we could grow them domestically in any season."
Challenges: "My teammates and I face different challenges," observes Swope. "For them, it's timelines and workload management. For me, the primary challenge has been managing COVID. There hasn't been any clear resolution to the pandemic, and ensuring employee safety with the constant shifts in regulations and the emergence of the Delta variant has been extremely stressful. It's particularly worrisome for our employees with small children who are still unvaccinated."
He notes that hiring has also been a challenge in the Bay Area. "Basically, the available talent pool is smaller than it once was. And managing funding also demands a lot of attention. We want to grow, of course, but we're also determined to do that without outrunning our cash flow. We don't want to hire five people and then have to lay them off if we lose a project. We want to grow appropriately. If you grow too quickly, if you don’t have the right processes in place, your client performance can be inconsistent. And above all else, we want to ensure a good client experience. We set and keep that bar as high as possible."
Opportunities: "We feel really fortunate that we've been able to move into a new building in San Francisco that has been expressly designed for manufacturers," says Swope. "Our previous space was pretty small, and it was in a rough part of town -- I sometimes worried about the safety of my employees. We're now in a secure location with a 3,500-square-foot space. It has 20-foot ceilings, and it's really quite beautiful. Even more to the point, we share the building with other designers and manufacturers -- including Humanmade, an advanced technology training center and makerspace. It has 10,000 square feet and a range of advanced tools and equipment that are available to us and that we use often. It's a great perquisite for my engineers, because they can use them for their own projects. Really, it’s one of the best perks we offer. We've also hired people from the Humanmade training program. So, I'm very optimistic what our new facilities and the partnerships we're developing will mean for our company."
Needs: "We have awesome engineering talent," says Swope, "but we're growing. At a certain point, I can see the need for some increased project and program management skills."