Scriba’s digital odyssey, from the U2 tower to the nib of hardware innovation

8 Nov 2017

The Scriba digital pen is a consumer electronics device designed and manufactured in Ireland. Image: Dublin Design Studio

Hardware is hard, explains David Craig, who is reinventing the stylus and reawakening the potential of Ireland’s indigenous electronics manufacturing industry.

Around 2007, David Craig was at the pinnacle of his career as an architect.

His firm, Burdon Craig Dunne Henry Architects, had won the prestigious contract for the U2 tower that would stand guard over the south docklands of Dublin (now Silicon Docks), helping to open the door to other prestigious projects. However, he was so consumed by planning squabbles involving developers, local government and residents that he was taken by surprise at the sudden financial downturn that began with the Lehman Brothers and would ultimately go on to destroy the Irish economy.

Tough years followed, and the U2 tower, like the Celtic Tiger, became a footnote in history.

“After fighting financial problems and reluctantly writing off bad debts, I decided in 2013 that it was time for something new and I wanted to go in a totally different direction.”

That different direction was his firm, Dublin Design Studio, embarking on a journey into electronic hardware, culminating in the creation of a whole new type of stylus, or pen, for architects and artists, entitled Scriba.

The company, a previous Start-up of the Week, is about to begin shipping the first of its Scriba devices after having landed a key online distribution deal.

Crucially, Dublin Design Studio’s Scriba represents not only the start of a whole new departure for the recovering architects, but it could also light the spark for a return to form for Ireland’s local electronics manufacturing sector.

Getting to the point

Scriba’s digital odyssey from the U2 tower to the nib of hardware innovation

The Scriba pen. Image: Dublin Design Studio

Scriba is an intelligent consumer electronics device that retails at €65 and has 10 times better battery life than the Apple Pencil, at more than 200 hours.

It features a highly responsive, squeeze-motion feature that lets artists or designers dynamically adjust brush strokes or control app functions. It also has smart Bluetooth technology that enables instant pairing with compatible iOS apps, and plans are afoot to integrate the technology with Android and Surface Pro.

“I suppose I grew up surrounded by nice things because my dad was a gadget freak,” the Scotland native recalled.

“So, I suppose it was natural that I wanted to get into hardware. I showed some designs to a friend of mine who worked at SanDisk and he felt that I had some interesting ideas. He made some introductions and I found myself in Germany presenting 20 different concepts to Gigaset, the telephone manufacturer. One of the concepts they warmed to was this weird stylus.

“I decided to give it a shot and, after being accepted for an Enterprise Ireland Innovation Voucher, I went to Tyndall in Cork to see if they could help me make it work. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful but, undeterred, I decided to give it a go myself. I had a 3D printer and made a working prototype with an Arduino board attached to plastic that allowed me to control numbers on a screen and communicate wirelessly with an iPad.”

New adventures in hardware

Scriba’s digital odyssey from the U2 tower to the nib of hardware innovation

Scriba creator David Craig. Image: Dublin Design Studio

Despite his enthusiasm, it became apparent early on that turning his idea into a product that would be affordable and manufactured within budget would be impossible.

He got involved with the Tog hackerspace in Dublin. “I got to meet a whole ecosystem of tinkerers.”

Craig also realised that he had no idea how to run a hardware business, so he applied and was accepted onto the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme for entrepreneurs. “I was the only one doing hardware.”

Despite being told repeatedly that his vision for an affordable but dynamic stylus would be impossible, Craig persevered and succeeded in gathering $66,000 in support from backers of Scriba’s Kickstarter campaign in July 2015.

Various hackathons followed, Craig developed a software development kit (SDK) for developers, and the development board for the stylus evolved.

“I gave up architecture and dedicated myself seriously to this thing. However, turning an idea into reality was going to be tough. It was through the connections that I had made at Tog that I was introduced to Mike Hibbett and, between us (just him really), we managed to dramatically cut the cost of developing the bespoke electronics in Scriba from €18,000 down to €380.”

Community and ecosystem

Scriba’s digital odyssey from the U2 tower to the nib of hardware innovation

Image: Dublin Design Studio

In doing so, Craig managed to foster a native Irish ecosystem that involved input from CISD at Athlone Institute of Technology, software firm Purpledecks, manufacturers Cartamundi (the manufacturing wing of Hasbro), contract manufacturer Beta Electronics, plastics consultants IPC and JL Goor.

“So far, we have shipped 100 out of 450 Scriba devices promised to our Kickstarter backers, and we have an order in for the first batch of 1,000. Our first purchasers are from 15 countries.”

But, as Craig pointed out, hardware is hard. “You have to learn everything from soldering chips onto boards to learning operations, marketing and sales. Most of what we have been doing for the last two years has been prepping ourselves for where we are now. Being named runner-up at Google’s Adopt a Startup programme helped us to refine our position.

“Developing the SDK was also a journey of discovery, and now we have six apps in the iOS App Store – four by ourselves and two by third parties, and we are talking to 15 other app creators.”

It has been a digital odyssey for a former architect who has moved from designing towers for rockstars to digital pens for architects, artists, animators and more.

In 2016, the company was the winner of the creative industry category in The Irish Times Innovation Awards.

“I learned the hard way that making hardware is hard and extremely expensive. If I hadn’t tapped into the ecosystem of makers like Tog and enticed interns and graduates – some 50 of them jumped in and got involved – it would never have happened.”

Scriba is available now in Hacketts’ flagship store on Lower Baggot Street and this month, it will retail on Amazon.

Craig concluded: “It is about creating something for the creators and I hope we bring in professional designers and architects as our early adopters.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years