Jonathan Meyers dreamed of a device that could replace the cumbersome rolls of plans he hauled around at job sites.
No, seriously—the idea came to him in his sleep. It was enough to nag the Baltimore-based environmental engineer to reach for his phone and groggily type a three-word note: “electronic field blueprints.” The next day, he surfed the Web to see whether such a device existed and found only “ruggedized laptops” and tablets with “beefy” cases.
Nearly three years later, Meyers is ready to launch the device of and in his dreams. The Zephyr is a 13-by-17-inch, foldable e-portfolio designed to display digital drawings just as well as their laser-printed counterparts. A product of PrintLess Plans, the company that Meyers co-founded last year with Jared Lyles, Zephyr will be making its way into the hands of select users this summer as part of a nationwide beta program.
The Zephyr looks like it could be the broad, outdoorsy, Patagonia-wearing cousin of Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite. It has Wi-Fi capability, a full-size, on-screen keyboard for commenting, a battery that can endure a week of non-stop use, and a pressure-touch sensor that responds even to users wearing gloves.
Zephyr’s operating system can open PDF drawing files from its hard drive, an SD card, or the cloud. Meyers says the company will look into alternate file formats after the beta test. Zephyr’s Android operating system can accommodate eight “floating windows” at once, similar to a desktop, allowing users to toggle, say, among an 11x17 drawing, the device’s built-in cost estimator tool, and an online directory of material prices. Zephyr also offers handwriting recognition and can translate annotations made with a stylus.
“It’s a very sound idea, and it fills a need that we see with great frequency,” says Tom Liebel, FAIA, a principal at Marks Thomas Architects, in Baltimore. “Either you have old physical plans on site that are full size but three generations old, or you’re trying to … pull new ones up on your handheld or iPad, which are not big enough to do the job.”
Liebel met the PrintLess Plans founders in the early days of their startup when the two approached AIA members to share conceptual sketches and seek feedback. Instead of speculating whether their idea would be successful, Liebel says, “they were actually talking to end users about how they might use the product. … They’ve been tailoring a device to our needs rather than making educated guesses ….”
Going from dream to device was a difficult process, Meyers says. “We always joke around that we were either too stupid to know we were doing something so difficult, or too crazy.” The PrintLess Plans founders, who left their full-time jobs more than a year ago to focus on the startup, hit roadblocks everywhere, from developing the hardware, sourcing materials, and finding backing.
“We tried to contact companies, but nobody would return our calls,” Meyers says. “Everybody said, ‘You have to get a patent.’”
So they did—and saved thousands of dollars by writing their own. When they finally landed a meeting with someone in the energy industry, they brought a leather-bound book with their new provisional patent, a story page, and diagrams. Thirty minutes later, they were shown the door.
You had an idea, you took some initiative, but you haven’t done enough to make it more—something people can get behind, the man told them. “It was the spark we needed to really get motivated,” Meyers says. “People weren’t going to hand us whatever we were asking for. We had to do a lot of it ourselves.”
The duo partnered with an engineering class at Dartmouth College, Meyers’ alma mater. With the institution’s clout, the two started getting their phone calls returned. They set up shop in Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center (ETC) business incubator and started pitching their product idea at hackathons and trade shows. And they turned to the local maker community for help, taking tutorials on how to use 3D printers and create parts and prototypes.
“The maker community is doing for hardware what the software developer ecosystem did for people wanting to program apps for the app store,” Meyers says. “It made the tools you’d normally only find at an engineering school accessible to the average Joe, but at a fraction of the cost. It’s … going to revolutionize hardware.”
“It’s been really kind of great to watch this bootstrap operation evolve over time and get some traction,” says Liebel, who will be part of the device’s beta test. Two remaining hurdles for the startup are promotion and marketing, he says. “It’s a cool thing, but there’re lots of cool things out there. Now’s the time to see [the Zephyr] come to market.”