MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu

Pt 963

In my previous article Jan Malasek from Pololu had some really interesting statements on intellectual property, so in addition to wanting to know more, I thought I’d see if Jan was up for an interview with MAKE about Pololu. I’ve been covering a lot of open-source hardware companies, almost exclusively, so I wanted to make sure I had some in the “maker space” that have not been covered in the recent open-source hardware articles (I don’t think open-source is for everyone, and see the value in a lot of diverse business models). Special thanks to Jan for sharing a bit about the company and more!

Hi Jan! Thanks for answering these questions! Where are you right now?
I’m in my office in Las Vegas.

How did Pololu get started?
We got started in 2000 as college students making an IR beacon system for MIT’s 6.270 autonomous robot contest. (There’s more info about it here) I was involved with organizing the contest for a few years, and the beacons they were using the first year I was there were very limited and cost a lot, so I convinced the other organizers to get the beacons from me if I could come up with something better.

What are the products you’re most proud of?
At this point, I’m still shooting for “not embarrassing”. Some of the products that fit that designation are our 3pi robot, Maestro servo controllers, and Wixel wireless modules. Those products have some decent engineering to them, we’ve sold thousands of them, and customers seem to like them.

What are your more popular products?
Besides the ones I just mentioned, some of the simple sensor and motor driver carriers are quite popular. It’s kind of frustrating when a really simple carrier sells more than a design we spend months on.

How many people do you have?
Around 45.

Why did you move to Nevada?
I think a lot of Nevada is quite different from Las Vegas, though I’ve only driven through Reno once. Las Vegas was appealing because it doesn’t get very cold, natural disasters are not very likely, and the business climate seemed relatively good (coming from Massachusetts). I like the idea of prostitution and gambling being legal in Nevada, even if I don’t engage in it (my gamble was coming to Las Vegas in the first place).

Is it true the taxes are less? Was that a reason?
I think so, and it definitely contributed to the decision. Unfortunately, having no income tax didn’t help that much when we weren’t making money, and the sales tax is pretty high (and keeps rising), which sucks when we’re buying equipment.

Is there a lot of space for a maker company to have machines like manufacturing equipment, etc.?
If you’re asking about commercial real estate space, there’s quite a bit available, though it can be difficult to find a space with the right mix of warehouse and office space for a company like ours. I am quite happy with the space we just moved to, where we have almost 40,000 square feet, of which about 12,000 is warehouse.

How is the maker scene out there? Are there hackerspaces and events in Nevada?
We helped start the Las Vegas robot club, LVBots, around 2004. Participation in that was decent and growing until around 2008; it dropped off quite a bit as Las Vegas got hit by the recession. Some of the LVBots members are involved in a Las Vegas hacker space (SYN Shop) that’s been slowly getting off the ground, but I have not been involved with it, so I do not really know what they are up to.

What products of yours are open-source hardware?

You’re in the maker world, but you do not release any of your products as open-source hardware, why?
There are many reasons, but they mostly boil down to not thinking it’s worth it from a business perspective. I am somewhat skeptical of companies pushing OSHW, so I think it would be disingenuous to use what I think is a gimmick to market a product. For instance, the 3pi robot I mentioned earlier has several custom mechanical parts, a patented circuit, and is done in Altium Designer, which costs over $5k per seat. I realize that some schools might have site licenses for Altium, but for the typical user, releasing the source documents would not mean much. We already provide schematics and explanations of how the thing works, the design is fairly well validated, and it’s not a particularly useful starting point for an improved design (e.g. one with a better processor), so the main entities actually getting something out of our releasing the source would be those trying to make knock-offs, and I’m fine with not giving them a shortcut.

In my previous article about Arduino being counterfeited you said “I do not think intellectual property is a morally valid concept, and I am all about freedom” – that comment surprised me and was the reason I wanted to do this interview, what did you mean?
My father escaped from communist Czechoslovakia when he was eighteen; he instilled in me a love of freedom. I think a lot of the problems in the world come from people thinking it’s okay to force others to do things, especially when that force is coming from a democratic society. Physical property must be protected since exclusivity is inherent in physical things (I no longer have something if you take it from me) and the rights to the result of your own work are fundamental to basic freedom. That is not the case with intellectual property: the primary purpose of that construct is to forcibly prevent people from doing things. If I invent a wheel, of course I would rather you give me something in exchange for me making you one, but it is not right for me to go beat you up or destroy your wheel if you make one yourself. Besides being immoral, intellectual property is also empirically bad for society; however, that should not really be relevant to the discussion, just as consideration of economic costs should be irrelevant when considering the morality of slavery.

Are there any products you plan to release as open-source hardware, if so which ones?
There’s nothing specific in the works. The most likely candidates are supporting boards for something like a mechanical chassis. But since the hardware would support a proprietary product (the chassis) and be done in Altium, I don’t think we would make a big deal of it.

You had mentioned you filed a patent or attempted to, what was it for?
US patent 7781920 is for the pushbutton power switch we use in several of our products. To those that might think it’s hypocritical to think patents are bad and then to get one, I think it’s acceptable to play by the rules while saying the rules are bad. I doubt that getting a lot of patents will be part of our long-term strategy, and participating in the system might give more credibility to my criticisms of it.

You also “DRM” your bootloaders, why? Has it helped protect your intellectual property? Did it work, has anyone cracked it?
I think it’s not quite right to call it DRM, in the sense that we do not talk about selling that secured firmware. We sell, for instance, a servo controller, and once you buy it, you have it. The servo controller has the capability of being updated, but we do not sell the updates or try to limit you to using a particular update on a particular servo controller. Anyway, we secure the bootloaders so that people cannot copy our designs too easily. We shoot for a level of security such that it would be easier to just rewrite the firmware from scratch than to try to crack the security. I don’t know if anyone has cracked it. You seemed to think there was no room for secrets in my freedom principle. Secrets are fine in that you do not owe it to anyone to tell them things you do not want to, and you should not be forced to tell others something.

What new products are working on?
We just released the mechanical part of our new Zumo robot, which in some sense has been in development for almost 5 years. We will be working on electronics for that such as an Arduino shield and stand-alone controllers.

Where can people see some Pololu hardware in person?
Counting our electronics boards and mechanical parts like wheels and brackets, we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of units, so chances are that something we made is in a maker project near you. We’re also happy to give tours and show people our products in person, so if you’re interested and in Vegas, let us know.

Again, I’d like to thank Jan for answering these questions over email. Makers, post up any follow questions in the comments!


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