When SparkFun Electronics founder and CEO Nathan Seidle was an engineering student at the University of Colorado, he was taught, "Real engineers come up with an idea and patent that idea." However, his experience with SparkFun, which he founded from his college apartment in 2003, is quite the opposite.
All 600 "SparkFun original" components are for sale on the site in addition to 1000+ resell products. All of the company's schematics and code are licensed under CC BY-SA, with some firmware CC0, and its design files are available on public GitHub repos. In addition, some of the company's designs are Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) certified.
Contrary to his college professor's lesson, Nathan sees patents as an anachronism that provide no guarantees to the companies and individuals who hold them. As he explained in a 2013 TEDx Boulder talk, "If your idea can be sold, it will be," even if you have a patent.
"When a company relies too much on their intellectual property, they become intellectually unfit—they suffer from IP obesity," he says. "There have been numerous companies in history that have had long periods of prosperity only to be quickly left behind when technology shifted. Cloners are going to clone regardless of your business plan."
Openness leads to innovation
Nathan says building a business on open hardware enables companies like SparkFun to innovate faster than those that are more concerned with defending their patents than developing new ideas.
Nathan says, "At the end of the day, by not relying on IP and patents, we've gotten stronger, more nimble, and built a more enduring business because of open source hardware." Nathan and SparkFun's 100 employees would rather spend their time innovating than litigating, he says.
His latest innovation is Artemis, a new type of microprocessor module and the most complex thing he has ever designed.
He hopes Artemis will enable users to design consumer-grade products and run anything from an Arduino sketch down to a bare-metal model for voice recognition.
"The Apollo 3 [integrated circuit] that powers Artemis is exceptionally powerful but also mind-bogglingly low power," he says. "At 0.5mA at 48MHz, it really changes the way you think about microcontrollers and low-power devices. Combine that low power with the push by Google to deploy TensorFlow light onto Artemis, and you've got the potential for battery-powered devices that can run machine learning algorithms for weeks on a single coin cell. It's all a bit mind-bending. We created a custom Arduino port from scratch in order to allow users to program Artemis with Arduino but not be limited to any toolchain."
Building a sustainable business on open hardware
Because all of SparkFun's designs and hardware are open source, anyone can take the source files and copy, modify, sell, or do anything they like with them. SparkFun appreciates that people can take its innovations and use them in even more innovative ways, he says.
"Where many companies bury or open-wash themselves with the 'open source' banner, we like to brag we're two clicks away from the source files: a link on the product page will take you to the repo where you can immediately clone the repo and begin benefiting from our designs," Nathan says.
You may be wondering how a company can survive when everything is open and available. Nathan believes that open source is more than sustainable. He says it is a necessity given the rapid pace of change. A culture of sharing and openness can mitigate a lot of problems that more closed companies suffer. He says, "We need to avoid the mistakes that others have made, and the only way to do that is to talk openly and share in our mistakes."