When he was 5, Miller shocked his parents by dismantling a typewriter. As a teenager, he teamed up with his father, a ham radio operator, to create a machine that used Morse code commands to dispense five kinds of Halloween candy. While earning a masters at MIT, Miller joined a team of students to build a robotic swimming tuna fish. And by 1996 he landed a job at Walt Disney Imagineering where he built a 12-foot-long, walking triceratops dinosaur.
So it's no surprise that he is at the helm of a company that assumes the role of manufacturing consultant and guide for entrepreneurs and investors, demystifying the hurdles that products have to clear as they scale for mass production. He and his staff of 20 have a combined 250 years of manufacturing experience.
"Starting this company seemed like a great opportunity to help startups navigate these waters," he says. "Otherwise some of them would turn to Alibaba or someone who steals their intellectual property or take on a partner that means well, but isn't willing to have their feet on the ground to get things done."
The 43-year-old, who recently moved his company to Cambridge, Massachusetts, found earlier success at iRobot, where his task was to refine the design and manufacturing process for Roomba, the vacuuming robot. Things changed when iRobot went public and Miller found himself at the top of the corporate ladder.
He wants Dragon Innovation—founded in 2009 during the throes of the recession—to give safe passage to entrepreneurs that have been swept up in the maker revolution. The company has since worked with MakerBot, Pebble, and Formlabs.
"Most people think when they have one unit working, they're done and the rest is easy," he says. "If you think of the alphabet, where Z is the working product in the consumer's hand, then a prototype is only C or D. There are a lot of resources out there for entrepreneurs to stand on the shoulders of others to get to a functional prototype quickly," he continues. "What we're working really hard on is to develop this API for manufacturing. We can act as an integrative part of their team to help them get the product into the hands of customers."
Even though accessibility has improved for the people who build hardware, the trickle of information and expertise into the investor community has been slow. When investors like the vision and passion they see in entrepreneurs building hardware, Miller's on the short list of people they call before signing a check.
"We're venture-backed and love the venture capital community, but if you look at what they know on average about hardware, they don't even scratch the surface," he says. Earlier this year Miller raised $2.3 million to build a crowdfunding platform just for hardware startups. "Well before we got into running a crowdfunding platform, VCs would come to us and ask us to get involved with companies almost as an insurance policy to make sure they deliver."
Getting the green light to raise money on the Dragon Innovation network is more challenging than starting a campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. First, a company needs a working prototype, not just an exciting idea. Second, they need to check their egos and prima donna habits at the door, Miller says, and be committed to becoming the next GoPro, Nest, or Pebble.
"If left unattended, a lot of companies can put on a sexy face and look great. If there's not a lot of vetting, investors can lose their shirts," Miller says. "That kind of thing isn't good for anybody. We don't want to kill the hardware revolution just as it's getting started."
[Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]