Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why There is No Camera Startups

Wired publishes an article by Marc Barros, the co-founder and former CEO of Contour, an action hands-free camera company. Marc discusses difficulties of creating a hardware company from scratch using camera startup as an example:

"Take cameras, for example. To make an amazing product you need: (1) a quality lens, (2) the latest image sensor, and (3) a powerful processor.

The best lenses are made in Japan (often by the camera makers themselves), so access to these components begins with $500K up front in engineering services and a guaranteed minimum order well into the thousands. Meanwhile image sensor companies are quickly being consolidated — so if a purchasing company isn’t a big name, it can’t even get access to the good stuff. For processors at least, the U.S. companies who created them are willing to provide access (to their true roadmap, SDK documentation, and engineering services), because they understand the importance of helping entrepreneurs build a product that maximizes their platform.

Overall, however, this lack of components means a hardware startup has to build volume with a crappy camera before they can make a really good one.

And of course, the established hardware players know their advantage in components is a massive barrier to entry. A few of them, like Sony and Samsung, are willing to sell other companies the same components used in their products as long as they don’t directly compete with them. Other companies, like Canon, build their own components to get ahead of the competition.


  1. In my experience, the problem is the start-up team's doesn't understand the camera ecosystem. There are barriers, but the suppliers are open to new customers that might become significant in the future. Getting access to quality camera components is not as simple as buying vegetables at the grocery store. Engineering support is harder to come by, but there are 3rd parties that can help with that, too.

    There have always been plenty of camera start-ups forming. As with any new venture, those with experienced and well connected staff do better than a group of naive new grads.

    That said, even new grads can do okay with a new venture. What's the name of that search engine that those two guys started a while back? Goober? Doodle? It'll come to me...

  2. Despite all the PR blitz and marketing hype, I believe the Lytro cameras didn't sell that well in the market. Of course, if anyone wants to dispute my statement, I am very much willing to hear some numbers and back down :) I think Lytro has better chance marketing their IP to some other camera vendor.

    In any case, the conventional DSC market is dead and buried, and attempts like Lytro will also not be successful because users are looking for ease of use and immediate sharing. Lytro cameras need very specific setup for shooting good pictures (otherwise, it looks like you end up with a crappy 1 MP photo) and proprietary software to even view them with different focal points.

    Sports and wearable cameras are what we may be looking forward to (other than innovations in the smartphone camera space, obviously).

  3. A couple of years ago, I was involved with a company that had a large opportunity to sell a private-label, custom-designed camera to a vary large retail chain. He had selected the sensor and was talking to the contract manufacturers in Taiwan. Everything seemed ok until, in a call that was supposed to be about scheduling, the Taiwanese manufacturer realized that the sensor did not interface exactly with any of the processor chips he had used. My customer offered to have a special processor made but the manufacturer insisted that he only would build cameras that fit his platform. This was the first time the customer understood this limitation and so he checked around. Essentially every possible volume manufacturer had the same restrictions. As it turns out, they did not actually know much about the cameras they were making and had no ability to accommodate any changes.

    A si9milar scenario occurred with a large company in China who wanted their own camera. They finally gave up because it turned out that no one in their organization understood how camera data sheets related to the actual hardware and software requirements. They ended up buying a private-label camera from a company in Japan who provided a cosmetically-altered version of one of their existing models.

    The camera ecosystem is now so rigid and brittle that it is no wonder that the handset people have gone elsewhere. Of course, those supply channels are now just as fossilized..

  4. What a simplistic view of the reality. I have managed >20 camera programs including the world's first pro digital camera systems and world's first consumer compact cameras (if you call binoculars compact) and in my experience, it takes far more than what is stated. What about brand recognition at retail or b2b? What about channels, disti? Manufacturing? Tarriffs? Lawsuits? Non-practicing entity suits? What about auto-focus IP owned by Japan Inc? What about SLR IP owned by Japan Inc? Better to find a niche like GoPro and keep your head under the radar.

  5. The problem is that, even if you find yourself a nice niche, you don't get access to the good sensors.
    I'm having a lot of fun playing camera startup, designing an FPGA to be the core of a motion picture camera. It needs to have a big sensor, and so far the only one I could get my hands on was the cmosis CMV12000. I would LOVE to use a Sony APS-C sensor instead, but they obviously won't even talk to me. But even Toshiba, who doesn't make similar cameras, only offers small sensors to the wide public.
    Half of the reason for me doing this is the fun, but it sucks that it would take a huge success with a not-so-good product to be able to access the stuff that could make it a great product.

  6. The article fits with my experience when working for sensor companies that OWN the sensor and have experienced engineers on-staff that do the camera design. Can't find an off-the-shelf lens and need something custom? $200K. Is your initial product build just a few K units? Good luck finding an factory interested in making them. Essentially the component and manufacturing ecosystem is not set up to handle non mass-market products (i.e. new concepts, new niches, or anyone who is starting to ramp).

    1. This is all true. Large companies don't have time for small customers. The greater the difference in size, the poorer the match. It's true of any ecosystem. Tigers don't eat amoebas.

      Your first mistake is going to manufacturers; you're not in production. You're in R&D. For a custom lens, find a lens house to design and diamond-turn a few prototypes for you. You'll pay through the nose, but it won't be $200k. It's a simple economic supply-demand curve. If your demand is low, expect to pay high prices. There are more fundamental laws out there than just physics.

      Once you are ready to place large orders, the manufacturers are very happy to deal with you.

  7. H-m-m-m-m, where does RED fit into this model?
    I think one needs to re-consider what a camera is (and isn't) these days. If you're talking about a traditional point-and-shoot image grabber then I completely agree - it's a very crowded field. However, there is quite a wide spectrum of imaging applications now from collision avoidance systems to multi-gigapixel imagers. Also, a casual observer of this forum must notice the intense competition among Sony, Omnivision, Aptina, etc., to produce higher resolution and faster image sensors. I would consider this the start of a 'golden age' of 'camera' development...

    Matt Whalen
    Applied Color Science, inc.

    1. RED is not a good example, Jannard was an insanely wealthy individual to start with...

      Now, this is interesting:

      And yes, we could be entering a golden age of camera development, but I think manufacturers need to be more open for that to happen.

    2. It could be a golden age but it could also be a hell. If every body uses Sony, Omnvision, etc, then how can you distingusih your system from others?

    3. "If every body uses Sony, Omnvision, etc, then how can you distingusih your system from others?"
      Ans. - The same way it's always been done with electronics - by putting a better 'secret sauce' (IE - image processing) inside! Canon would be another "me too" camera manufacturer without their DIGIC chips and the success of GoPro is solidly on the back of Ambarella.

  8. All true and don't under estimate the optics. In SLR cameras the optics contribute dramatically to image quality. Pushing F number down requires out of the box thinking bad technology evolution

  9. Completely agree with Anonymous. Making a research prototype is one thing, but actually getting the optics n sensor right for perfect quality n also managing all engineering challenges that come with mechanics, thermal challeges etc is herculean. And all the time needed to follow up with vendors etc. But luckily if we collaborate with right people, the tough ride, seems enjoyable.


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