Faculty Entrepreneurs: Tom Igoe

Tom Igoe is a co-founder of Arduino and runs the physical computing area of the curriculum at ITP. The whole mission of ITP is to take people from a wide variety of disciplines and give them first-hand experience in the production of interactive and digital technologies. He believes that when people have a better understanding of how to do this, they are empowered by it. Physical computing is focused on the idea that you don’t interact with digital technologies without your body. We get hung up on thinking that it’s all about software, because we’ve commoditized the interface to it: the laptop, the tablet, etc. He gets students to think about the fact that they are always interacting with the interfaces of physical objects and teaches them how to build them.  

How does your research (as a faculty member) align with your work and aspirations as an entrepreneur? Where do they overlap and where do they diverge?

My involvement with Arduino came about because it was a tool that seemed right at the time for what I was doing with my students. It was developed originally by my colleagues at the Interactive Design Institute in Italy. During its development, we had been in communication because a lot of the work and teaching they were doing was based on the philosophies of ITP at NYU. So we ended up sharing a lot of resources. When they finally came out with the Arduino, I said, “yes this is something I would use in my classes, and if you ever decide to actually sell these let me know because I would buy them." Then they contacted me and said that they were going to start a company, and asked if I wanted to join. I had no real aspirations to be an entrepreneur, but I felt that what they were doing was such a good idea and a useful tool. I felt that the part that was valuable about it was that previously they were making a tool that was by engineers for engineers and they were trying to make it for a wider audience, which is very much in line with our ambitions at ITP. I was and still am happy to advise people on how to make something to reach a wider audience.

What was it like founding Arduino?

We had always been in touch trading tips and such throughout the whole development process. I’ve been teaching at ITP since the late '90s, and we used a lot of different controllers for the job. And so much of what we were doing, in building the curriculum, was adapting engineering tools and the language of their documentation to a multi-disciplinary audience. Then in Italy, the IDI folks invited me to a prototyping workshop. In order to develop the prototypes, we ended up using Arduino, and that’s when I got hooked on it. It was unlike any of the other tools I’ve used because it felt pleasant to use, the language was less terse, and the set up was much easier. A lot of the things you used to have to do over and over again you didn't have to do with Arduino. I could very quickly forget about using the tool, and focus at the task that I was using the tool for.

What advice would you give faculty/researchers who want to commercialize their research but don’t know how to get started?

Number 1: Make sure you believe in what it is you are making. Make sure you would buy it yourself. Anything else and you’re just being a crack dealer, and I think there’s an awful lot of them out there. I see so many software and social media apps where the people making them wouldn’t ever use it themselves and I don’t think they have any regard for the customers.

Number 2: Don’t get to hung up on getting rich, and instead focus more on satisfying the customers. I think the most rewarding part of what we do with Arduino, was when I was at a Maker Faire this weekend and someone comes up to me and says “thanks I just did this really cool thing, and I’m really happy about using Arduino, and I was able to do it because of that”. That is when the job is satisfying. If you focus on the things that give you an intrinsic reward, you have the stamina to go for the long run. I see a lot of people burn out on their ideas because they aren’t attached to them. When it’s just about the monetary gain, they make it through halfway and go “I don’t want to do this anymore”, because they don't believe in what they are doing.

What did you want to do when you were 18 and 28? How does that relate now?

At 18, I was just getting interested in theater design. I did that for the next 10 years. Then at 28, I was just arriving at NYU as a student, and I was thinking about how the Internet was going to change the world. I wanted to understand and be a part of it. I felt like it was either going to roll over me or I could have some voice in how it affects the world. The reason I got into theater at 18 was because it seemed to me like a really great medium for communicating ideas to people, telling them stories and getting them to see the way the world could be. While that is still true today, after 10 years of doing that I realized you were reaching an audience that already wanted to come to the theater, and beyond that your reach was limited. After getting here and meeting Red Burns, founder of ITP, I realized that digital technology gives you a chance to reach a much wider audience. I want to see a world that is fairer to everyone across the board. The only difference between me at 28 and me now is realizing that wanting that and achieving that is a lot harder than I thought.

If you could give one piece of advice to a budding entrepreneur, what would it be?

Don’t call yourself an entrepreneur. The same way I would tell a budding engineer to not call themselves an engineer. Focus on what it is you care about more, what really upsets you, and try to make that better. When you do that, you end up with a really good business. Success is both intrinsic and extrinsic. Success is integral to getting through the very hard parts and allows you to be motivated to go the distance.