CircuitLab is coming up on its one year anniversary, and the startup (now part of Y Combinator’s winter 2013 cohort) now boasts 70,000 monthly active users, who run an average of one circuit simulation every six seconds. The phenomenal traction for the electrical-engineering-focused startup has a lot to do with the team offering up a tool that’s both free and particularly well-suited to educational use, and it bodes well for CircuitLab’s chances of helping early stage hardware startups get off the ground.
For CircuitLab, it’s all about taking up a place of primacy at the very outset of the electronics design chain. To that end, co-founders Mike Robbins and Humberto Evans designed CircuitLab to be a web app where electrical design engineers could draw and simulate a circuit without reading a single manual, and without using complicated, expensive legacy desktop software that was completely one-sided. CircuitLab makes it so that engineers can work together on simulations that are accessible via any browser, getting away from the existing practices in place around tools like PSpice, Multisim and LTSpice.
The open nature of the CircuitLab tool has helped it gain lots of early traction with academics and institutions, since it’s a free, accessible standard platform that teachers can use to help electrical engineering students get simulating without delay, and without having to worry about compatibility or platform lock-in. In a phone interview, Evans and Robbins said that they’ve reached out specifically to spread the word among educational faculty, but that they also often hear about the product being picked up in classes based on the recommendations of students.
“Our bigger user base so far has been in academic institutions, and we’re certainly replacing some of the desktop software that gets used in those programs,” Robbins explained. “The most direct problem we’re solving for them is that half of their students now come in using Macs, and the existing tools are ll Windows-only or even weirder software than that, and we’re hearing from Professors they could not support their classroom because everyone’s using different software.”
Getting students on board as a sizeable early user group is obviously a good thing: the current electrical engineering majors will go on to be the working engineers in half a decade, meaning there will be a generation of professionals whelped on CircuitLab and ready to act as evangelists. But in general Robbins adds that CircuitLab is seeing good use in a number of other scenarios, too, often with small pieces of a product that are simulated separately from the larger whole, like a power supply vs. an entire board. Robbins says that’s a “useful place” for CircuitLab to be, likely because it’s so broadly applicable.
CircuitLab has just nailed down a couple of key partnerships with Electronics.StackExchange.com, where it acts as the embedded schematic design and simulation tool, and with the publisher of EE Times and EDN, which is the industry leader when it comes to professional electronics publications. That, combined with the backing and support of YC, put it in a very good place.
Others like Upverter are out there operating in similar territory, but Evans and Robbins say that CircuitLab is targeting an earlier stage of the process overall, and they argue there’s still plenty of room for lots of competitive and complementary players in this space. Given that many of the dominant tools already out there are old and have changed little in the past ten to twenty years, they’re likely right, and their strong early traction backs that up.