Elk, a blockchain dev board for decentralized IoT, launches on Kickstarter

Hardware developers toying with the idea of building physical stuff that can plug into the decentralized world of blockchain should point their eyes at Elk: A dev board in the making that’s been designed to support all sorts of IoT projects with a blockchain flavor.

Such as, for example, a connected door-lock that doesn’t demand that your ability to access your own property be dependent on the uptime (and accord) of servers of a remote corporate giant, nor your comings and goings be logged by a commercial third party.

Or, in another of their suggested examples, an alarm clock that charges you in bitcoin if you hit the snooze button too much, rather than getting up. Ouch.

The team behind Elk have just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to bring their prototype to market — with the aim of shipping the board to developers from next Spring.

They’re looking to raise a modest ~$20k. While the gizmo is being priced at $59 for early bird backers, or ten dollars extra for those who failed to, uh, un-snooze their clocks in time.

We covered Elk last year — when it was in an earlier stage of development and being called Elkrem.

At that point the team hoped to get the device to market before the end of the year. As it turns out it’s taken them a little longer to feel ready to fire up a crowdfunder — hitting various challenges along the way.

It’s worth flagging it’s not the team’s first product for hardware devs. They grabbed attention at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe back in 2013, when they got plucked out of startup alley as an audience choice to participate in our startup battlefield competition — where they pitched their idea to tap into sensors on smartphones as an alternative to Ardunio shields.

They went on to crowdfund and ship the 1Sheeld — and are still selling it to this day.

So there are fewer caveats than can usually apply to a crowdfunded hardware (though, as ever with anything being pitched for sale when still a prototype, it’s always prudent to expect delays).

Here’s a quick Q&A with Elk CEO and co-founder Amr Saleh on the team’s aim and ambition for the device:

TC: What is Elk and what is it for?
Saleh: Elk is a hardware development board for the blockchain and the decentralized web. It combines the simplicity of Arduino with native support for decentralized networks. With only a few lines of code you can build IoT that interfaces with Ethereum, IPFS, Whisper, and more!

Elk empowers developers to build what we call “Decent IoT”. Decent IoT is decentralized, gives users true control and true privacy, and allows entirely new use-cases like payments, oracles, selling your data, and much more.

With Elk you can build a smart door lock that you can control remotely without relying on a cloud provider that tracks and controls your device usage, or build a charging station that you can rent with Ethereum, or lock money into a treadmill that you can only get back when you work out. The possibilities are truly endless.

TC: Why is dedicated hardware necessary for developing blockchain IoT devices? What advantages does the hardware offer over rival dev boards, for eg, using microprocessors like Raspberry Pi?
Saleh: You can certainly use a microprocessor like Raspberry Pi to develop blockchain IoT devices. What differentiates Elk hardware-wise is that we combine both a microcontroller a microprocessor, a WiFi module and persistent storage preloaded with our OS in one breadboard-compatible board, and this allows us to offer a development experience that is plug-and-play just like programming an Arduino.

Unlike using a Raspberry Pi, with Elk you won’t have to deal with wallet and keys management, fuss over setting up nodes, tune their parameters to run well on an embedded device, handle crashes, etc. We are delivering the 10x easier Arduino-like experience to blockchain IoT development, with all the libraries that Arduino already supports. Developers can now focus on their applications and not the overheads.

TC: Who is the Elk for? How large is the blockchain hardware development community right now & how do you see that evolving over the next few years?
Saleh: Currently, blockchain hardware development is small and mostly siloed to building hardware wallets for blockchain enthusiasts.

We believe the potential for blockchain and decentralization extends far beyond that. Elk is not just  for blockchain enthusiasts, but for privacy-conscious makers as well. Decentralization allows us to build IoT that is far more private, far more secure, and far more capable. We call it “Decent IoT”, and that’s what we are set out to introduce with Elk.

Current IoT architecture relies on centralized cloud providers for communication and data storage. This, by necessity, means that cloud providers (and whomever hacks them) can control your devices, deny you access, or tap into your private life.

The new decentralized web enables a completely new paradigm for IoT. A paradigm where your communication flows privately through a decentralized network with no central authority responsible for relaying your communication, no third party that can track your device usage, and no third party that can control your device. It additionally opens the door for other possibilities like payments, oracles, selling your data, and more.

Elk provides the tools and the UX to make building Decent IoT as easy as writing a few lines of code, and we’re hoping that over time this would further drive adoption of decentralization within the hardware community.

TC: Why the delay in launching the KS? What challenges have you encountered as you’ve prototyped Elk & how confident are you of meeting your estimated shipping deadlines?
Saleh: Blockchain and decentralization are very nascent fields, and ensuring that Elk offers the stable plug-and-play experience we want to offer was certainly a challenge.

Another significant challenge we faced was finding the right balance of features to offer in Elk. For example, we initially felt it was paramount for Elk to have a secure hardware enclave and spent months building out a prototype. We decided to later drop hardware security in favor of a stable and superior development experience. The development experience in building Decent IoT, we think, is far more of a bottleneck than pushing the extra mile in security.

At this point, we’ve been through four different iterations of our hardware and have done our diligence to be confident that we can deliver the product we’re offering with no surprises in production. We’ve already been through the process of manufacturing hardware. In our previous Kickstarter we shipped on time to our backers and sold tens of thousands of units in the years that followed.

TC: What’s the business model? Are you intending to make money via distributing/supporting the SDK as well as selling dev hardware?
Saleh: At this point, we are focused on making Elk the standard for building blockchain IoT devices. Beyond the current campaign, we’d be looking at enterprise use-cases that require stricter hardware requirements and support.