Written by Ron Justin | Co-Founder of GroupGets.com
It wasn't part of the plan to be a cornerstone in compact thermal imaging. We had just built a crowdfunding platform to hack minimum order quantities for existing products in our "spare time" with grandiose visions of democratized access. Being in the right place at the right time however, led us to the ground floor of an electronics breakthrough.
So how did we get here? Flashback to a gym in Goleta, CA; in early 2014. Most of the patrons were engineers from local Santa Barbara tech shops. I was talking with another engineer that I never met before. We quickly got to what we were hacking on: myself on advanced sensors for the government and GroupGets.com with my co-founder, while he just happened to be one of the main Lepton designers at FLIR. Things clicked and soon we had one of the few Lepton prototypes in the world that could leave the building - it's better to be lucky than good right?
The FLIR Lepton long-wave infrared (LWIR) thermal imaging camera core was the perfect opportunity to publicly launch our group buy platform with. It was a cutting edge thermal imaging sensor capable of measuring remote temperatures in a field of view at an unforeseen size and price but its initial minimum order quantity was $200K. This was the exact problem that we were trying to solve!
The original Lepton beta dev kit filled the mini Pelican case shown below. It was ironic how many converters and dongles were needed to read out a 9Hz 80x60 frame from a tiny camera the size of a fingernail. It still felt very James Bond to be driving around town with this secret kit - especially as a startup that nobody ever heard of.
We knew that Lepton was going to need a more compact development solution to catch on so we envisioned a breakout board for a BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi, or Arduino interface to enable rapid prototyping not only for enterprises, but for anyone. We then brought in a friend and at the time my day job co-worker, Sashi (also founder of Pure Engineering) to make the board. He soon joined our team to make it and other sensor breakouts while our CTO, Kurt, wrote the production open source firmware and software. The classic breakout board for FLIR Lepton was soon born, licensed to FLIR and eventually ended up on Digi-Key, MCM, Avnet, Future, Sparkfun and our new store for curated and created hard-to-find hardware. It was surreal to see one of our creations on sites that we go to in our daily professional lives.
Before the board was done we decided to go ahead and launch our first-ever group buy campaign in Sept. of 2014, featuring the FLIR Lepton. Sincere gratitude goes to those first 68 backers who gave us a shot and of course the FLIR team for believing in us. They got a single prototype quantity instead of the MoQ of 100 way before large distributors had them and FLIR was able to get early customer feedback while they ramped up production for high volume orders. I remember packing and shipping the first units myself thinking, we just hacked a decades-old components supply chain paradigm (we didn't pre-order any inventory - we had no money) for one of the hottest electronics components on the market. This was our Breaking Bad moment.
It was apparent that FLIR had a hit with Lepton even if it was not yet widely known. Just like GPS was far too expensive, power hungry, and bulky to be in consumer electronics when it first emerged, so were thermal imagers. FLIR is changing that. Lepton sales started spiking in 2015 and FLIR kept innovating. Soon came the FLIR One attachment for smartphones powered by Lepton and then worldwide hackathons to support FLIR One and bare metal Lepton app developers.
Next we made a Lepton Raspberry Pi kit for the first "Hack the Heat" hackathon in San Francisco where we also attended as support staff. There was a mix of tinkerers, advanced research teams from Ivy League schools like Stanford, Valley veterans, and unknown startups like WashSense Inc. making big bets on and pushing the capability of a brand new thermal imager from Santa Barbara.
Soon after that we were making custom Lepton boards for other companies, putting Lepton on drones for others, selling to small distributors, and were very cognizant that Leptons were the tiny bricks building the foundation of our bootstrapped side-hustle. We did over half a million dollars in revenue in our first year of operation. Then came the exotic cars and rockstar lifestyle... just kidding!
Fast forwarding about 3 short years and a MILLION units later, Lepton is now in smartphones, drones, DIY creations, and many other devices on the way. New products with Lepton won awards at CES 2017, the radiometric Lepton 2.5 is adding more precise temperature measurement and the Lepton 3.0 is adding 4x more pixels.
We've also continued to innovate with Lepton and beyond. The PureThermal 1 hackable USB thermal webcam is our latest innovation. It's a single-board solution to get thermal video directly into any computer over USB that is finding use in new Lepton product development, AI research, hackathons, art exhibits, and UAS apps. To enable our users to take advantage of the radiometric mode of Lepton 2.5, we created the open GetThermal app for Linux and macOS to display a temperature scale throughout a Lepton image from PureThermal 1.
As we look forward to new Lepton innovations and the 10 Millionth Lepton, we offer a sincere congratulations and Thank You to a very talented and driven FLIR Systems team. They've been great to work with and extremely supportive to us and the Lepton developer community at large. We also want to thank our Lepton backers and store customers, both maker and enterprise, that repeatedly buy Lepton and our home-grown accessories from GroupGets despite the other options - that means a lot to us and keeps us going. We do this for you.
With the wide availability of Lepton it no longer makes sense to offer them in group buy campaigns like we did at its launch, but we still offer group discounts for Lepton Development Kits targeted at the more advanced Lepton hackers. There are always new campaigns from other manufacturers and we are continuously looking for more from makers, startups, and established enterprises. If you have a great product ready for a journey, hopefully as successful as that of the FLIR Lepton, start a campaign and check out our other success stories.