Mr. China Goes To San Francisco

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A block from the Mariposa on-ramp and in the eye-line of 90,000 cars whizzing by on 280 sits an old warehouse that was home to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a local alt weekly, and Digg. Most of the building is gutted, and inside they are working on the “greatest enabler of hardware on the planet,” according to PCH International head Liam Casey. It will be the new home of Lime Lab, a hush-hush design consultancy that Casey bought in 2012 for an undisclosed amount and, most important, the U.S. gateway to Asian PCH’s manufacturing might that allows hardware startups to access stem-to-stern services in design, coding, manufacturing, packaging and shipping.

Casey, dubbed “Mr. China” in a James Fallows article that outlined the rising importance of Shenzhen as a manufacturing giant, is one of the biggest machers in Asia. A teetotaling Irishman, the inexhaustible Casey ostensibly lives in a hotel in downtown Shenzhen but is nearly always in the air. He and his cross-cultural team make nearly all the accessories you can imagine for multiple vendors. You couldn’t point a finger in a Best Buy without hitting a product PCH builds.

He envisions his new building as a gateway to China and a way to help clients – and the public – understand the vagaries of mass manufacturing. The space will contain a public foyer and cafe where visitors can learn about materials, design and manufacturing. C-Level training will go on in a large anteroom on the first floor with a huge video screen suspended on epoxy-sealed walls.

In short, it’s the Apple Store if the focus was all the trouble that went into products before they ever reached the consumer.

“We want it to be the most photographed building in San Francisco,” said Andre Yousefi, co-founder of Lime Lab. The company, which started in the doldrums of the recession, consisted of Yousefi and his partner Kurt Dammermann until Casey bought them and expanded the team to 25. They expect to hire 15 more engineers by October and hope to fill 80 seats in their new HQ by 2014. Not bad for a tiny, two-man shop in a run-down district of San Francisco.

Yousefi is the buttoned-down member of the group, clean-shaven and more dedicated to design than manufacturing. Dammermann is the scruffy mechanic who has seen factory floors and is at home with drill presses and band saws.

The Lime Lab vision is born of the needs of hardware startups and companies that need a full-service consultancy to help their products move from idea to packaged product in a few short months.

“What we don’t do is the high-volume accessories work,” said Yousefi. “We’re doing more up-front product development, end-to-end.” Using PCH’s retail distribution platform, TNS Distribution in Dublin, Ireland, coupled with the company’s extensive contacts in China’s manufacturing centers, Lime Lab can take a sketch of a product and bring it to fruition at a speed unimaginable for most strategic design houses.

Yousefi and Dammermann were former IDEO designers and CAD jockeys who wanted to build their own consultancy.

“You come to us with either a napkin sketch or just an idea and we do the detail design and development to flesh it out,” said Dammermann. “One we have the idea fleshed out with the design team, we work with the team in Shenzhen to take it to the finish line.”

The team was reticent to mention their clients or current employees although they have hired ex-Apple, Intel, and IDEO engineers and designers who were looking for something more rewarding. They are working on everything from audio products to mini-computers and their current offices, though small, hold CNC machines, 3D printers, and a small testing facility. The new lab on Mississippi Street will contain far more gear, as well as a situation room for describing the retail shipping patterns laid out by PCH and the design decisions made for each product – all in a building that is bathed in natural light thanks to a long bank of leadlights windows.

“A lot of engineers in the Bay Area have become more strategic. We’re trying to close that loop and create engineers that are really good at manufacturing,” said Dammermann.

“The physical-making aspect of engineering is slipping away,” said Yousefi. Lime Lab hopes to change that.

Like proud parents, the pair was excited to show off their new baby. The building is not nearly finished but already they talk about the epoxy-sealed floors as if they’ve been walking on them for weeks and the banquette style wooden stairs as if they’re getting ready to present to a group of schoolkids the next day. The space is huge and outside there is a definite whiff of marijuana in the air, as if the neighbors were enjoying the relative quietude of the neighborhood to run a grow house. One of the previous tenants left a Diego Rivera-style mural of mightily straining migrant workers on the stairs up to the second floor, an addition that the partners haven’t yet decided what to do with. The walls have been stripped down to studs and you can see the thick joists peeking out from between whiffs of insulation. In short, it’s a great place to start again.

Before

  1. 135_Proto_lab

  2. 135_Auditorium

  3. 135_ground_floor

  4. _135_ExteriorPhotograph

Brady Forrest, formerly of Khosla Ventures, will run PCH’s Incubator program from the third floor of the building where two rows of desks will house ten small- to mid-level startups. These companies will have a direct line to Asia. Most Lime Labs employees will also spend three months in Shenzhen to become accustomed to working with a bi-continental team.

“People are always talking about how manufacturing expertise has moved to China. The best thing is that we’re bringing it back,” said Dammermann.

The “after” renders the team shared with me show a building that is half factory and half Prada store. The exposed brick is mostly hidden and the space is all light and air. Gone are the remnants of industrial San Francisco, replaced with a shape as form-fitting and beautiful as an iPad box.

“We never gave up on hardware. I’ve never started a web company.”

“It took us a little while to look for buildings. When we first started, Liam was like ‘Nope.’ He wouldn’t even get out of the car,” said Dammermann. They settled on the biggest building they could find, signing a 10-year lease on the space. There is enough room to invite groups to hold meet-ups at the space and there are plans to offer engineering seminars to incubated companies as well as executives who may be interested in starting up using Lime Labs expertise. While they are looking for larger clients in the Valley – the company is also looking to help Kickstarter projects join the ranks of successful business. “Hardware makes software sticky,” said Dammermann. It’s this ethos that drives the pair to make their lab accessible to all comers.

The last floor of the new space is a roof deck dedicated to the incubator participants and engineers. From here you can see the iron belt of the highway girding the edge of the Bay. It’s windy up there, a problem the pair will have to solve down the line. Until that time comes, probably sometime in mid-2014, the team can simply focus on hiring and building.

“The junior guys are awesome. Their network is immense. They’re like pigs in shit. We send them out to China and they come back with smiles on their face. One trip alone gives you two years of experience,” said Yousefi.

“We never gave up on hardware. I’ve never started a web company,” said Dammermann with obvious pride as the sun set over downtown SF.

(Soon-To-Be) After

  1. PCH Exterior[1][1]

  2. PCHLevel 1_Final [1][1]

  3. PCHSituationRoom_Final[1][1]

  4. PCHStairwell 1_Final[1][1]

  5. PCHStairwell 2_Final[1][1]