Adafruit’s Ecosystem of Innovation

In a world where everyone from the local school board to President Obama are discussing how to get young girls more interested in STEM education, New York City-based engineering powerhouse Limor “Ladyada” Fried stands as a salient role model. With her signature hot pink locks, Fried founded successful electronics hobbyist company Adafruit Industries in 2005, while working on her masters at MIT.

To relax afterhours, Fried would build fun projects, like mini synthesizers and light-painting toys, posting her builds online. A multitude of folks were interested in her designs and implored her to put together kits. At first she dismissed their requests, arguing that she was supposed to be working on her thesis. Eventually she gave in and began assembling and shipping bundles that included her custom circuit boards and other components.

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Adafruit took off at lightening speed, and in 2013 grossed $22 million in revenue. Currently housed in a 30,000-square-foot space in Lower Manhattan, Fried’s company has over 50 employees. The Adafruit Learning System includes more than 600 freely available tutorials and has become synonymous with quality and open-source integrity. Their online store features over 2,000 unique products, and they ship 20,000 orders a month.

Fried explains, “I think the company took off because, before these kits, there wasn’t a learning project out there that you would actually use or wanted to keep. Some people will learn for the sake of learning, but most people need a reason.” She adds, “I was motivated to start Adafruit because I love doing electronics and I really wanted to share that excitement of doing engineering and building stuff. I think everyone has a creative side and they want to build and construct and not just consume.”

Perhaps at the root of her success is the community she’s cultivated. By basing her business firmly on open source hardware and software, she’s effectively created an “ecosystem of innovation” where products are rapidly improved through community feedback. Fried is herself still deeply entrenched in the selection, testing, and developing processes that go into their kits and products.

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Roughly three months ago, Fried added an Othermill to Adafruit’s workshop and says, “Our testing procedure is much faster now. We can design and revise our circuit boards in-house within hours instead of weeks.” Adafruit backed Othermill’s Kickstarter campaign and promoted it to their community the very day it launched. Fried asserts, “This is the first high-precision PCB mill we’ve seen, with great software too!” She adds, “I can now make precision circuits and prototypes for manufacture without getting a vat of chemicals. It’s also allowed many Adafruit staffers to learn PCB design and manufacture because of the fast turnaround times and low barrier to entry.”

So far, one promising project that Fried has made while experimenting with the Othermill is a flexible PCB prototype using Pyralux. She says, “The mill is precise enough that it can actually mill through the copper side but not all the way through.” The PCB they milled was for a strip of Adafruit’s signature NeoPixel LEDs, which worked quite well. And that’s only the beginning. She mentions, “We have some ideas for future flex products, and the precision capabilities of the Othermill will save us hundreds of dollars by letting us skip the prototype fabrication step.”

Fried’s hard work and dedication over the past nine years have paid off with countless accolades, such as being named Entrepreneur of the Year by Entrepreneur magazine, winning the EFF Pioneer Award, being the first female engineer on the cover of Wired magazine, and receiving recognition as a top innovator by Popular Mechanics, Newsweek, and Glamour, to name a few. But to her, the biggest motivation is inspiring the next generation of engineers. She says, “We all have our roles and little parts we can do to make the world a better place through learning and sharing.”

And a powerful role model she is. Fried’s been producing her popular, live electronics show, “Ask an Engineer,” every week for the past five years. A frequent and favorite guest on the show has been electrical engineer Amanda Wozniak. A highpoint was when Fried received an email from a father who’d been watching the show with his daughter for four years. His daughter had asked, “Are there any male engineers? All I see on ‘Ask an Engineer’ is all these women doing electronics engineering.” As Fried so eloquently states, “We are what we celebrate, so if we celebrate all kinds of people doing engineering, all these kids are gonna look and say, ‘Hey, I can do engineering. I can have pink hair. I can have a lip ring. I can wear all black and be an engineer — that’s cool.”