“Heatit IPO three times oversubscribed”. Not a bad headline, had this electronics platform been floated on the stock market in late 2012. Instead, the small international team that mixes electronics with with heat-sensitive pigments and muscle wires raised money on Kickstarter. Nearly $17,000, a great deal beyond their $5,000 goal.
At the core of the Heatit project were two women, Eszter Ozsvald and Kärt Ojavee. By now the Heatit team has grown to a group of talented designers and developers. The Hungarian-Estonian tandem began collaborating as students at the Tallinn University of Technology and have made quite a splash at the intersection of fashion, art, and technology. They’re perhaps best known for SymbiosisO, a series of programmable textile interfaces “designed to visualize information and express emotions”.
Artsy pop-culture observers took note in 2012 when, together with artist Alex Dodge, Ozsvald and Ojavee were invited to create an interactive installation for Issey Miyake’s storefront on Hudson Street in New York City.
Their collaboration is exactly the kind of outcome that those pushing for student exchanges and international study programs like to see. Universities provide a platform for collaboration in the hope that bright young minds will cross-pollinate and create something great.
We caught up with the pair over email and asked about the seeds of their collaboration, their love for Kickstarter, and the road ahead.
Your story begins on a cold January day in 2009, when you met at the Tallinn University of Technology. What brought you together, and was there anything about the place itself that created the right mix of chemicals for creative & entrepreneurial sparks to fly?
It is a mixture of coincidence, an encouraging hub, and well-suited backgrounds that let us follow our own inspiration. With technological support from the lab, we could bring our vision alive.
Kärt Ojavee: The supervisor of my doctoral thesis is Maarja Kruusmaa, the head of the Center for Biorobotics [at Tallinn Tech]. This is how I came across to spending time and doing experiments at the lab over there and collaborate with the engineers. When Eszter came as an exchange student, we started to work on interactive textiles for one of my first exhibitions. That’s how we got to know about the creative match.
Eszter Ozsvald: I received an Erasmus scholarship to Estonia, enabling me to continue my studies at the lab. I was coming from a multidisciplinary field, pursuing my degree both in industrial design engineering and mechatronics. I was ready to get involved with something new and really inspiring.
Estonia's government, schools, and tech firms are working together to attract international students. What do you make of these efforts?
Having international people as part of your environment is an opportunity to get a broader view of problems that you have been tackling. International students are usually open-minded and come to learn more about you, pushing social relationships and teamwork -- which is key to innovation.
The Center for Biorobotics is innovative and fresh compared to traditional schooling systems. We’ve seen a similar vibe on the overall Estonian tech scene, probably as a result of consciously taken directions that mix with the curiosity of the human mind.
Why did you opt for Kickstarter to fund HeatIt, instead of shopping for "smart money" by giving a good chunk of your company to early-stage angels in exchange for cash, contacts, and business-building smarts? Was it the right choice for you, in retrospect?
Heatit is a tool to power our up interactive interiors, and it started as an in-house development. Soon thereafter we realized that it’s useful to other creators as well, and decided to open up.
Heatit not so much a business, but a platform for our ideas. Kickstarter is the perfect platform to make this idea come to life and introduce our idea to the world. We’re excited to see how the creative community translates it to their needs and comes up with a variety of applications. We started conversations with toy makers, fashion designers, biorobotics labs, urban farmers, and even received comments from health care institutions.
On the other hand, SymbiosisO, Heatit, and the whole process has given us confidence to continue developing and researching the opportunities of smart living environments -- and to offer it to a wider audience in the near future. At this time, we are looking for angels to realize our bigger plans.
Technology tends to be a world populated by mainly male geeks and entrepreneurs, especially here in Estonia. Yet here you are, two women, who've made the world their oyster. Has it been harder or easier because you're going against the stereotype grain?
Our work is an example of an engineered artifact with a female sense - soft from outside but rather complicated at the core. True, we’ve been presenting our soft textile work at conferences where the audience is primarily male. However, the tech scene is getting more and more gender-balanced. Technology needs its female side.
Why do you do what you do? Is it because you just like it, or are there some broader themes at play? Is the world a better place because of your work?
Attraction, motivation, and consistency - that’s what keeps us working. We believe in making the urban living space a responsive place. We envision blending behavior and vividness with technology for a holistic and human-centered outcome. We don’t know what makes the world better, but we have our best intentions.
These days, Eszter calls New York her home. Kärt, you're still in Estonia. How do you keep your collaboration humming?
Being apart, we mainly collaborate via the magic of the internet, using Skype and managing the time difference in a creative way. We have developed our own sense of language through the years.
You've been hacking away for four years. What are you working on now and what's next on your journey together?
Wow, four years!? In the meantime, we’ve both almost graduated and are now getting to know real life.
We are also working on our newest SymbiosisO line that will be presented in New York in the fall of 2013. We’ll be showing an interactive interior set that features the best of the SymbiosisO concept.
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by Villu Arak