Nathan Harding’s journey into the world of innovation began with a simple childhood curiosity. From his early years in Houston, he found himself captivated by the art of deconstructing and fixing things.
Little did he know that this innate curiosity would pave the way for a groundbreaking career that would span the realms of mechanical engineering, robotics, and even the beauty industry. His startup, LUUM, has attracted funding from top-tier investors like SaxeCap, XSeed Capital, Foundation Capital, and Handshake Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- A childhood fascination with deconstructing and fixing things set the stage for a journey into mechanical engineering and innovation.
- Recognition of the gaps in education leading to the pursuit of further studies at Berkeley, which exemplifies commitment to continuous learning for personal and professional growth.
- Experience with Berkeley Process Control revealed the unpredictable nature of capital equipment demand and the need for adaptability in the face of market changes.
- The discovery of power-saving breakthroughs in exoskeleton technology highlights the potential for innovation to reshape industries and create new possibilities.
- Showcasing the potential and challenges of hardware startups and demonstrating the value of patient investment despite the allure of rapid returns in software.
- Pivot into the beauty industry, exemplifying the power of cross-industry innovation and the potential of technology to revolutionize traditional sectors.
- Focus on safety, precision, and augmenting human capabilities, offering a blueprint for ethical and impactful robotics applications.
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About Nathan Harding:
Nathan Harding is the CTO and Co-Founder at LUUM. Nathan has also held the titles of CEO and Co-founder, CTO and Co-founder, CEO, and Co-Founder at LUUM.
Nathan was responsible for the management of product development projects at Ekso Bionics (formerly Berkeley Bionics). At Muhtayzik Hoffer, they were an Innovator in Residence and were responsible for finding innovative ways to leverage the power of the award-winning M/H team to create new products and industries.
At HVF Labs, Nathan was an Entrepreneur and was responsible for testing the market and technical feasibility of a transdermal electronic stimulation device for erectile dysfunction.
Nathan has been instrumental in recruiting leaders for the Quality and Manufacturing departments, as well as in locating and recruiting a defense industry insider as CEO in order to close a licensing deal in the defense sector.
Nathan Harding attended the University of California, Berkeley, from 1991 to 1993, where they studied mechanical engineering. Nathan then attended Carnegie Mellon University from 1986 to 1990, where they studied ME and economics.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Um, already hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a very exciting founder is a founder that has done it multiple times you know he actually took his last company public. So we’re going to find you know his journey quite inspiring. But again you know I don’t want to wait I don’t want to make you all wait any longer so without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today Nathan Harding welcome to the show so born in Midland Texas give us a walk through memory lane I was left growing up there.
Nathan Harding: Thanks, Thanks for having me.
Nathan Harding: So I don’t really remember anything about midland I left there after 2 years but I do remember a lot about growing up in Houston and you know we were way out in the suburbs and I basically played in this area near Buffalo Bio all the time. So I got kind of ah, almost like a cajun upbringing though that would that would make my California mother crazy to hear me say that.
Alejandro Cremades: And how how do you get? How do you? How do you got into you know the whole thing of engineering and and problem solving and robotics and how did that come about.
Nathan Harding: You know it was just like a natural obsession. It was something I never could have stopped I started when I was a little kid just taking everything apart and fixing anything I could find broken and. You know building mini bikes and go carts and that kind of thing and um and you know when I heard of what mechanical engineering was I was like well that’s me that’s what I want to do so. Ah. I You know, kind of found out where were good schools to go do that and and started applying.
Alejandro Cremades: So you went to Carnegie to do your undergrad and then after that you did you know some stage there. You know with some robotics a startups. So at what point do you decide that it’s time to go to Berkeley and do the grad.
Nathan Harding: Well I think when I exited Carnegie Mellon I I still felt like there were missing pieces like I was extremely focused like I really wanted to know exactly how to design machines and I wanted all the academic part of that as well as the practical part. And I felt like I still didn’t have all the academic part that I wanted. Um so I applied to Berkeley about I don’t know year year and a half after getting out of Carnegie Mellon I went back to school.
Alejandro Cremades: So then you go back to school and you go to Berkeley you see Berkeley out of all places and definitely you know there. You know what are pivotal you know moment that you see I mean I guess people tell you know, influential everything that you can think of because only you got. You know your degree there but then also you kind of like give you the push with your next thing you know with you with one of your companies now and we’ll get there in just a little bit but right after grad school you know, basically you went into one of the one of the companies there that was not that far off and you actually worked for that company. 14 years what kept you for so long.
Nathan Harding: Well, it was an amazing opportunity. The company was called Berkeley process control and they’d done an ah amazing job of hiring just brilliant people like that was the 1 core competency that company had that always worked so it was a brilliant team of people. And they were making machine controllers. Um, and some of their customers. They were telling their customers like hey you should try to build the machine like this and their customers would say will you build the machine for us and so I was the first gearhead. You know the mechanical ah person that they brought on to do that and so. Had a really great opportunity to deform a team of mechanical design engineers and mechanical designers to do that work. Ah and it was really successful. We went on a terror for a long time.
Alejandro Cremades: So then what got you to go back to UCBerkeley
Nathan Harding: Well, um, the what the equipment that we ended up manufacturing was mainly optical fiber manufacturing equipment and the bottom fell out of the optical fiber market. In fact, it fell for us even before that because 80% of our business was to. Ah, one customer and they they had an accounting scandal and so we we went dead a little bit before everyone else went dead and you you literally couldn’t sell anything in capital equipment. You know demand is almost like a square wave. It’s like when they’re growing. It’s like give me every single thing you’ve got. And then when they stop when they put the brakes on they actually start to repair their machines with parts from their other machines. So so you can’t even sell a spare part. You know so it it kind of went belly up my team dispersed. I I talked to my old advisor back at Uc Berkeley he was still doing human exoskeletons which he had been working on while I was there and I you know I I got talked into going into the lab. In fact, he he bribed me in by time he had. 3 d printers at the time which in 2003 was really rare and so I really wanted some time on those printers for some things I was doing and so we did an exchange and he wanted to bring in consultants and mix them with students and see what would happen.
Nathan Harding: And he was right? as soon as I brought in some of my old team. We started breakthroughs and that was the genesis of exobiionics.
Alejandro Cremades: So how did the exobiionics come knocking. How did that happen.
Nathan Harding: Well, we had a you know we the the real boy and the the only people funding exoskeletons at the time was really darpa in the us and it was all defense stuff for load carriage and the real. Barrier everyone was seeing was like how do we? How do we provide enough power to these exoskeletons. You know, like ah because you couldn’t carry enough batteries to power the thing and um we had ah you know we had a breakthrough that allowed us to make. The exoskeletons use much less power than had ever been distributed that had ever been demonstrated before and and so that you know all of a sudden it was like wow maybe you really can make a business around exoskeletons and so we you know we. We incorporated and we started to get a lot of grants both from Darpa and nist and some other government organizations.
Alejandro Cremades: You know there’s a lot of a founders that that are listening that are really used to raisingcing money from vcs and how does it work really, you know the the whole thing around grants. How do you get 1 and what’s the process of getting 1
Nathan Harding: Yeah, um, you know there’s there’s a whole bunch of grants and there’s a cycle where they they publish the the ones the the topics that they want explored. And um, you know the easiest ones to get are ones called sttr grants where you team with an institution. So if you know any professor at ah at a top institution like you see Berkeley you team with them and and those are the ones that are really the highest hit rate. Um and and then you get. Ah, you get the money in various phases over time and back back then you could make it add up to one point five or two million dollars if you got through all the phases. But the thing that’s the tricky part about it is you have to make something that that. That is actually gonna be good for your business fit into their topic and that’s where it can get really tricky because sometimes you can find yourselves doing things that you know aren’t necessarily necessarily on the critical path of your company and you’re just doing it because. They provide another million dollars right
Alejandro Cremades: Now in this case, you know with exobiionics for the people that are listening to really get it one ended up being the business model. How are you guys making money there.
Nathan Harding: Yeah, so um, we did a great licensing deal early on with Lockheed Martin to do the to do the military accessoskeletons and we got to a we got to a pretty great demo with ah natic soldiers center that did a study and we had. With some soldiers. We were really doing well on their metrics and some soldiers we weren’t we kind of we kind of like increase the standard deviation of the differences of load carriage and at that point the army was getting cold feet about how much they wanted to keep looking into exoskeletons and ah, fortunately. We had been doing grants in the medical area at the time and we we had our first medical exoskeleton up and running right about that same time so we pivoted to that and we created a human exoskeleton that you know. You could easily strap on to patients of multiple sizes and it could do a ah variable amount of assist so that you could handle people who were either completely paralyzed or or you know barely paralyzed. Um. And and get them up and walking.
Alejandro Cremades: And what was the ah the journey of raising money for for the company. How much money did you guys raise prior to taking the company public.
Nathan Harding: Um, prior to taking the company public. We probably raised, especially if you count the non-dillutive capital of the um of the grants and the Lockie Martin contract um I would say we we raised something near $40000000
Alejandro Cremades: Got it.
Nathan Harding: Probably um Beforehand ah being going Public. We raised 30 and then I soon thereafter raised another 26 and then another fifteen so we started to really get money because at that time we were. You know we were gearing up to be a real medical ah manufacturer a medical device manufacturer which is it’s a very costly game. Um, you know and so sorry ah that’s my.
Alejandro Cremades: Nor is all that it.
Nathan Harding: That’s my son is the only person who can ring through and no no I want to what I’m trying to do is get remember how to actually turn it off because he’ll just keep calling a bit. Okay, there it’s off.
Alejandro Cremades: Um, no words you want to mute yourself and pick it up.
Alejandro Cremades: Um, all right are glad go ahead. The recent money.
Nathan Harding: Ah, ah so where were we? Um, oh yeah, so um, you know what exo it was. It was a I would say it was a tough road raising money and I had a Cfo who was very. Innovative and really helped and we did all kinds of different ways to raise money. Um, you know, in fact, our largest investor for a long time was chickasaw nation industries which was definitely not the you know, typical sandhill road. Ah, vc um, I’d say it’s it’s really difficult in general to to finance hardware startups and so it led us to be ah, really scrappy and in in fact, in going public. We did it through.
Nathan Harding: An old-fashioned reverse merger not not one of these like glorious Sps you hear about now. But um, just ah, a reverse merger into an empty shell. Um, and ah, you know that. That really worked and we were able to raise a lot of money I mean and I think we we really gave it ah a good run.
Alejandro Cremades: Um, and what makes it so difficult to raise money for hardware companies.
Nathan Harding: Well, you know the vcs know that the timelines are longer. I mean there’s no there’s no way that I can say that ah you can have a. Ah, startup like ah Facebook or something like that happened in the in the hardware world because you can you know I remember Skype it was like when they were valued at $3000000000 I think there were like 9 people. Or something you know is something crazy like that it can happen very quickly. Very small teams in the software world and so um, the vcs all want to find those. Ah you know those software unicorns that go so fast and so I don’t fault them for looking for that but I do fault them for you know, especially the smaller vcs I mean the best deals in the in the software game are you know they go to the they go to the top vcs by reputation. And then there’s kind of a halo of of vcs connected to those and I think it’s it’s a little foolish when I see that some smaller like peripheral vcs who can’t really get the great deals. Don’t think that they could do better with hardware startups but they they keep.
Nathan Harding: Working on the exact same things as the as the big vcs. Do So I think that um I think that there’s a lot of money to be had by ah by ah vcs that can really invest in hardware properly and find the right deals.
Alejandro Cremades: I mean obviously what a remarkable journey. The company did speak you know in the market cap it hit 600000000 plus so really amazing. But as always you know for you. It came to a point where it was time to turn page and the turning page you know came with.
Nathan Harding: Just takes a little longer.
Alejandro Cremades: Making some phone calls to the people that they that were very smart that you know and they that they ended up you know with that very unique industry that maybe you would have not imagined that you would land in so who did you call and what happened out of those conversations.
Nathan Harding: So I called I was calling old advisors of mine and I called ah a brilliant advisor of mine who who was a brilliant marketing guy and who was like retiring at 48 or something like that and I was like you want you know what are you going to do with yourself and he tells me. Well I just bought a franchise region of amazing lash studios and you know I almost fell out of my chair. It was one of the more ah shocking things I’d ever heard because I was frankly I was the typical dumb guy I had no clue how great the beauty business was. Had no clue how big it was um and you know the kind of the ah the regulation environment. How great that was I didn’t know any of that you know and so I was like wow here’s this brilliant guy I know telling me he’s going into beauty salons. And he starts telling me like oh it’s great. There’s this recurring revenue and it’s exploding and and I was like but I don’t I don’t even know what you’re talking about like what is a lash extension and he. Describes to me the process of putting on eyelash extensions where you glue one little lash at a time on and it takes you know a couple hours to do an appointment and I immediately joke with him like hey that sounds like a great job for a robot and he he laughed and I laughed. You know it was totally meant to be a joke.
Nathan Harding: And then you know two days later I remembered this conversation and I thought ah you know I’m going to look at that on Youtube and I went and I looked at people doing it on Youtube and I was like man I think this is a killer app for robotics I mean it looks perfect.
Alejandro Cremades: So what did it look like from there. What what happened next.
Nathan Harding: So the media thing I wanted to do was figure out like is this a market would women let robots be near their eyes. All these things because I didn’t know anything about ah beauty and I went to some friends of mine. Who had a successful ad and branding agency in the city and I traded equity for them to give me a team and they gave me a team lead and Rachel Gold who’s now co-founder and Cmo of loom because she got so addicted to the idea. And we started doing focus groups. Ah and you know we do focus groups where we’d hold a big machine mock up over someone in a lounge chair you know and ask people like what do they think that this would intimidate them. you know what and ah and these things um and you know we we started to learn a lesson that I’ve learned so many times on this adventure is that women are just braver than men about all this stuff number one. Ah and so women love the idea. Ah when I’d talk to men. They’d be like oh my god I don’t know about that right. Um, and we also learned we did salon owner interviews and we found that there was a huge labor shortage and they were just tearing their hair out trying to train and retain people and we also found out that it’s it’s like.
Nathan Harding: The one of the reasons I Love this app for robotics is it’s literally right at the edge of human Capability. So a lot of people who train to do it end up giving up because it’s so hard and I love that I Love an application. That’s you know. Right? at that edge of human ability because I don’t really like the aspect of like just replacing people I like to augment humans. Um, and that’s that’s essentially what we decided to do was augment these lash artists and give them a really fast tool to do the bulk of the lashes.
Alejandro Cremades: So then for the people that are listening to get it. What is the business model. How do you guys make money.
Nathan Harding: Ah, so what we do is we deploy our machines into third parties ah stores like our you know first strategic partners are ulta beauty and benefit cosmetics. Um, and. You know we charge them $62000 when we deliver the machine and then we are going to charge them fifty. One dollars each time they run a full set of lashes and $24 each time they do a ah a refill of lash extensions and and that ah. That works out with fantastic economics for both us and them both both entities see a payback on the machine in about six months um and then you know it just it just goes from there and then what they also see that they love is a very addictive service that’s in there. Store and keeps bringing those customers back because because of course when those customers are back in their stores. They buy others things.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in this case, you know how much capital have you guys raised today and what have you done differently about the capital raising you know efforts based on what you know already with a prior company.
Nathan Harding: So ah, we raised about 15000000 so far. Um like all hardware startups. It’s been a hard go but we’ve done it I would say in much more mainstream ways we did not do any grants I mean I guess you. Some people suggested that because we’re doing this fine manipulation. We could have couched some of this into a ah research grant. But I I did not want the distraction of of grants in this business. So. Um, so we’ve um, mainly financed it with ah vcs and a lot of Angels and we’ve also you know dabbled in the crowdfunding world as well.
Alejandro Cremades: Now for something like this you know when when it came to to loom I Mean how do you guys think about perhaps guaranteeing safety.
Nathan Harding: Yeah, so that was a big thing right in the beginning is like we didn’t want to do anything where we could actually hurt someone and we’re working right near their Eyes. So This is really the you know the big factor In. And what we what we ended up doing was a paradigm we call Gorilla in a box where the the machine is a big steel box and there’s a bunch of fast robotics in there but none of them can reach the client none of that can reach the client.. There’s a little window where the client’s face is. Presented to the robotics and the only thing that can physically reach through that window are these little featherweight tools and we call them featherweight because they’re literally like the weight of a feather and those tools we attach to the robotics with just tiny little magnets. So. If you were to go up to our machine and you bump those tools with your finger. They just fall off. So so you can imagine that ends up with a system that it doesn’t matter what happens in the box. It can’t hurt the client below and that’s what we really wanted was something inherently safe that just you know couldn’t. Couldn’t produce an an injury if it wanted to like.
Alejandro Cremades: Um, and what does it look like when you’re applying Ai on stuff like this.
Nathan Harding: Well, we use a lot of Ai. Um, and we we use it for image processing and looking at images and telling us very specific things like a great example is like looking at an image of the eye. And drawing a line right? where the eyelid line is um and and but and that’s really pretty easy for ah for a neural network. The data set that you train the neural network with the the set of images that you show it to to learn. Doesn’t have to be that large. Um, but if you try to do it with classical techniques I can tell you it’s a nightmare because that’s what we do is we always do it at first with classical techniques and then we use that to build data and then we train a neural network and then we replace the. Classical techniques with the neural networks and what’s funny is when we were doing classical techniques on that particular problem. Ah, people would come in with a permanent eyeliner that’s been tattooed on the on their lid line and we just couldn’t we couldn’t deal with it. Like with the old school classical techniques. We just couldn’t deal with it at all and you get enough data and you train a neural network and the neural network has no problem at all and knows right where the lid line is regardless of of what tattooing I have on their eyelids or not.
Alejandro Cremades: So imagine you go to sleep tonight Nathan and you wake up in a world where the vision of loom is fully realized what does that world look like.
Nathan Harding: Yeah.
Nathan Harding: Um, it means that there’s a global brand called loom that stands for you know the cutting edge of ah of beauty services and. And automated beauty services in particular and that there’s loom machines. Um that can give me great lashes whether I get them in Dayton Ohio or wherever I get them in Paris I can get the same lash great lashes and I can get them super fast. And have a great experience while I do it.
Alejandro Cremades: I Love it Now. Let me let me ask you something now towards the past because we’re talking about the future here. So Let’s say we put you into a time machine and I bring you back to that moment where you had just a returned to UCBerkeley and And you are there at the lab you know just playing with stuff and let’s say you were able to go there and enter the room and have a sit down with your younger self and being able to whisper to your younger self one piece of advice before launching a business but would that be and why you know what? you know now.
Nathan Harding: Wow um, maybe make it simple I think that um you know, ah. I think that a lot of us entrepreneurs. Um, we think that we have to create something entirely new and entirely different. Um, and you know it’s hard enough to make a successful business. Anyway, um, so I think that you want to you you want to pick things and and I’m kind of the opposite of this in a lot of ways is you want to pick things that are that are that seem easy at first because the truth is everything is hard right? Um, and. Ah, you if you pick something hard then you’ve you’ve made it even harder right? So so that might be it. Um, because I see that with a lot of entrepreneurs and robotics in particular ah where. You know they want to develop a brand new arm to do an application and I’m always like well why don’t you just buy a robot arm and go do that application and really figure it out become a service provider. You know, simplify what you’re trying to do um.
Nathan Harding: So I think I think that might be it.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it now for the people that are listening Nathan that would love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Nathan Harding: Um, you can contact me on Linkedin um I think that that’s the best way. Ah nowadays I’m not the fastest at Linkedin but I will get back to you.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing. Well hey Nathan thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Nathan Harding: Great. It’s been an honor to be here. Thanks Very much alejandro.
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