Lance Cassidy was doing cutting-edge aerospace engineering work at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia when he saw a glaring gap between engineering and design.
Engineers could solve the most complex problems, but designers helped them find the right problems to solve. And he wanted to know more about that.
So the N.C. State engineering graduate went back to his alma mater to become an industrial designer, and has set off on a design career that’s led to consulting work at a high profile San Francisco hardware incubator, an MIT Design Lab startup and an Andreessen Horowitz-funded Silicon Valley app. He’s also helped turn around his family’s ecommerce company in Cary and started three of his own businesses.
One of those, DXLab Design, will open an incubator at the new downtown HQ Raleigh next month with at least seven designers providing insight and design to any of the co-working space’s startup members while each working on their own startups and projects.
“I really like supporting the movement of getting design entrepreneurs the resources and opportunities to take their initiative forward,” Cassidy says. “I think a lot of them are really timid about entrepreneurship. They think, “I’m not a developer,’ but that’s a strength.”
The journey to DXLab started after Cassidy went to work for Net32 Inc., a dental supply e-commerce company run by his father. During a lull in sales several years back, Cassidy applied the theory of design thinking—using design to create products people will actually use—to revamp the website with better user experience, develop a holistic product strategy and a simpler product roadmap. And he found a way to display that roadmap visually on a wall so everyone could see it and buy in.
And here’s the kicker: Sales doubled in six months.
“I gained a lot of confidence as a product manager and developer, that a designer could think about these types of problems,” Cassidy says.
DXLab was born soon after to work with hardware and software startups to apply design thinking during product development. To find some willing guinea pigs, he flew out to San Francisco and visited a hardware incubator called Lemnos Labs. He offered a handful of startups free consulting time one day, and soon, they were the lab’s first clients.
One was Blossom Coffee, an MIT team developing an artisan coffee machine. Another was ride-sharing startup Local Motion, which raised $1.5 million and then a $6 million round from Andreessen Horowitz after DXLab helped it apply design thinking to its product.
His timing was good. A group of designers in San Francisco had come together to create the Designer Fund, an education program, mentoring network and designer community helping designers build and fund new businesses. And a couple venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of Silicon Valley and lightbank of Chicago created design fellowships to provide design consulting to their portfolio companies.
Convinced that design thinking was the next big bet for successful startups, Cassidy decided to bring the concept to startups in his hometown.
“The more we worked with startups, the more we understood all of the nuances of creating a founding team and raising money,” he says. “Eventually, I was like, we can do this.”
The idea for a Triangle-based design incubator was born, and HQ Raleigh proved to be its ideal partner. It had dozens of startup teams as members and potential clients for designers, and space in its new building for the designers to work. Experienced founders and mentors were already involved in the co-working space and could help the designers with their own projects.
The incubator is still in the early stages. For example, Cassidy is determining whether to (eventually) have an application process to find the best designers (He’s already hand-picked the first seven). He also plans to raise around $400,000 from companies willing to sponsor a designer to work in the space. He expects the designers to spend about six months at a time in the incubator.
One thing that is decided is that designers will be required to have a multi-disciplinary background. Already, he’s got a team with skills in dance and DJing, engineering, mathematics and user experience design.
“If I can get all of these people in the same space, they are going to do something amazing,” he says.
Cassidy’s own side projects include the ThinkHouse, the first-of-its-kind live-in incubator in Raleigh training young entrepreneurs to launch high growth companies. There, he’s teaching the first group of residents about design thinking and participating in its other programming to build Healthy Bytes, a Google Glass app that lets users photograph their food and receive personalized health coaching from dietary experts.
He’s also developing a network for inventors interested in 3D printing called Prototyper. It would allow inventors to connect with 3D modeling experts to have their products designed and printed.
And he spends about 20 hours a week consulting for Lenovo.
Cassidy believes his engineering background remains an important part of his career—it lets him speak the language of both a designer and a developer. For the startups at which he consults, “It adds a bit of street cred,” he says.
Two disciplines he neglected to share but can be found on his LinkedIn profile are piano and karate. He’s won awards as a pianist and holds a Black Belt in the martial art.
Perhaps in his next interview, he’ll share how those hobbies impact the way he thinks about design.