Movers & Shakers Interview with Keith McMillen, Founder & CEO - BeBop SensorsPublished Date: 3/9/2020
Keith McMillen is the Founder and CEO of BeBop Sensors www.bebopsensors.com, the world leader in smart fabric sensor wearable technology. McMillen has started and sold two companies in his 30+ years innovating in the sensor and audio market. Zeta Music revolutionized stringed instruments and was sold to Gibson Guitars in 1992. Octiv, started in 2000, received funding from 3i and Intel Capital and was sold to Plantronics (NYSE:PLT) in 2005. McMillen is the inventor on numerous patents; has released hundreds of profitable products; published dozens of scholarly papers, and was winner of a Guthman Award in 2010. He received a B.S. in Acoustics from University of Illinois at Urbana.
Vishal Sapru (VS), Principal Consultant, Cognitio Research Inc. had an opportunity to conduct a Movers & Shakers interview with Keith McMillen (KM), Founder and CEO – BeBop Sensors.
VS: Can you provide our readers a brief overview of BeBop Sensors? The vision behind its formation and the role you see for the company in the market?
KM: Music has always been a passion for me, so I named my latest company as a tribute to the avant-garde BeBop jazz style that developed in the 1940s and continues its influence to this day. I previously founded a series of companies, starting with Zeta Music in 1979, all related to applying electronics to music and business. BeBop Sensors was spun out of Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI) in 2014. I developed the BopPad, a unique electronic drum pad, that uses patented Smart Fabric Sensor Technology to provide drummers with a wide range of musical effects depending on where and how hard they hit the surface. I created BeBop Sensors to expand the range of applications for this unique technology.
VS: Please, describe the functionality/technology of your Haptic Gloves for enterprise virtual reality training and its likely impact on the market? How different is it from the products that are already available in the market?
KM: In the VR environment, nothing replaced the motion and flexibility of the human hand. To address that issue, we created a wireless data glove hand-tracking system that tracks fingers and fingertips and sends tactile feedback via haptic actuators. The sensors offer speeds of 500Hz for fast response times and low latency. The battery can be charged over a standard Micro USB cable and works all day. We designed the Bebop Forte Data Gloves such that they are comfortable, with an open palm construction to reduce sweating and a one-size-fits-all design that is thin and light.
We are already seeing an impact in the market based on customer orders and industry feedback. Our product is different from the competition in that it has haptics, it has super-fast response time, it is universal and cost competitive.
VS: Introduction of new products/technology always comes with challenges either from the market, existing products, customer and the settling period of the product/technology itself. What are some of the likely challenges you are expecting to face in the market and what strategy do you have in place to overcome it?
KM: We are overcoming those challenges daily. Our product comes at a time when there is a need in the market, a need that wasn’t apparent two years ago. We have designed the BeBop Forte Data Gloves in anticipation of customer needs, as well as based on beta test results. We expect that some of our customer related applications will take longer to realize, hence we have tried to address a broader set of applications with the same hardware product and are customizing software to address specific needs.
The current market situation has created supply shortages in Asia. But because most of our supply chain is based on-shore, we expect to weather the storm.
VS: How would you describe the unique value proposition of Haptic Gloves product and can you list its key competitive differentiators? Are there any unique features of your product that address unmet customer needs and competitors are unable to replicate and replace?
KM: The key value proposition with our BeBop Forte Gloves are as follows:
- More comfortable, fits most people
- Hygienic and breathable open palm design
- More powerful haptics for an intuitive feel of different textures and surfaces
- 30% longer battery life for 15 hours of all day use
- Faster sensor speeds at 500Hz
- May be cleaned by spot cleaning
- Price Competitive
Most products that are shipped by the competition are tethered, which is quite undesirable in the VR training applications, as well as in many other. The inability to keep up with the response time of the display/audio also renders competitive products unusable in some applications. Finally, we haven’t been beaten on price.
VS: What is your strategy in regards to offering best value to customers for the price, compared to similar offerings from competitors? Also, what kind of customer feedback mechanism do you have in place to ensure that the product development and innovation matches market and customer needs?
KM: We are quite sensitive to customer/market needs, so we have priced our product at a price point that takes into consideration the application, volume, and competition. Our plan is to introduce products that will take share from our predecessor products. When we launched the product, we took customer feedback into consideration into the design process. We also conducted elaborate alpha and beta tests to determine market needs before the formal launch.
VS: Could you elaborate on the acceptance or adoption of your product in the marketplace and are there any client testimonials that can be shared with us? Also, do you foresee the acceptance of your product to have influence (trend setter) on the overall direction of the market?
KM: We have client testimonials which we have used in private settings, but we don’t see an advantage sharing customer testimonials broadly and create a target on our back. Kindly pardon us for not sharing this level of detail. We believe that we have already created a product that is shaping the market dynamics in terms of features and benefits and we hope to stay innovative.
VS: Continued innovation is the key to success for any company. How is the process of innovation managed at BeBop Sensors? And what do you want the company to accomplish in next 2 to 3 years and how will you define success for BeBop Sensors?
KM: We are customer driven. Customers have direct input into our thought process designing new products, as well as adding features to existing products. Our wish is to dominate some of our chosen markets with products and technologies that become the default standard. Product success is gauged by market share and, in particular, share of tier one applications.
VS: What are your marketing and product positioning initiatives? Do you plan to form any strategic alliances and/or partnerships and will the focus be regional or global? How do you plan to build and strengthen the brand equity of your offering?
KM: We are positioned as a leader in the space based on our technology and product attributes. Our strength lies in R&D, as well as the ability to remain nimble. Yes, we will augment our current partnerships with suppliers and customers as we grow both in different industries as well as geographically.
VS: To conclude - what do you think the future holds for your company and the product? Any other information you may want to share with our readers that may be important and we missed asking?
KM: Today, we are attempting to make virtual reality applications useful by providing the sense of touch. Our customers are already transforming industries and this change will happen at an ever increasing pace. As we grow, we will use our technology in new markets and geographies.
At our core, we are musicians and engineers. Our background in the music industry has allowed us to ship sensor products in millions to that industry. We would like to see musicians play better based on valuable data our gloves will provide them.
We are based in Berkeley and we are proud of our technology. Our incredible team is what makes everything happen. In our own small way, we are making a difference in the world.