Teaching People to Share Technology: Adafruit Founder Limor Fried


This story is based on our interview with Adafruit founder Limor Fried

When Adafruit founder Limor Fried was studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, she realized she was less interested in the electrical engineering part.

“What I really liked to do was build stuff,” she said.

Instead of working on her homework or thesis, Fried spent her time designing hardware projects in her dorm. She built an MP3 player way before Apple made iPods popular.

“With electronics, you could build anything from an MP3 player to a GPS tracker,” she said.

Fried started building different gadgets, including LED light toys for the annual Burning Man creative festival. She published these projects on her website at MIT, including the CAD schematics, firmware and instructions on how to build them.

“It was kind of open source hardware, but at the time it wasn’t a thing yet. People would say, ‘Oh, no, you just published everything and gave it away,’” she recalled.

She started getting queries from around the world from people interested in building the devices she posted about, but they were having trouble sourcing the components.

“They needed actual hardware that I used in my projects. It was really difficult to get different components from different places,” Fried said. “You would have to order PCB [printed circuit board] from one place, resistors and chips from another place. It was really complicated for most people.”

Soon she started getting emails asking if she could sell a whole kit. Initially, she wasn’t interested, but she relented and began a small side business.

“I started selling a couple of kits, which I would ship from the local post office,” Fried said. 

That small business eventually became her full-time job: Adafruit. In the last 13 years, the venture has grown from a few kits to over 4,000 products.

Adafruit offers what it calls “open source hardware,” designing and manufacturing innovative yet affordable electronics products, components, tools and accessories. When this hardware gets into the hands of creative people, they build some incredible things with it.

What Fried loves about hardware is that you can actually touch it, pick it up and show it off. 

“You can take it out and wear it at Burning Man or cosplay conventions,” she said. 

In addition to being fun and creative, Adafruit’s hardware also helps people. In the last couple of years, Adafruit has been working on assistive technologies, developing adaptive and rehabilitative devices to assist people with disabilities. 

“It changes their lives,” Fried said.

These types of devices are a great option for people because you can do only so much with proprietary technologies. Off-the-shelf devices are difficult to customize, and hiring someone to build just what you need could be very expensive and out of reach for most people.

“Open source hardware is a perfect middle ground. It’s inexpensive and allows you to customize the way you need it,” Fried said. “The code is there. Instructions are there. Anyone can do it. Since it’s open source, people can iterate, tweak, fine-tune to their needs. We are seeing a lot of interest in open source hardware for assistive technologies.”

Adafruit’s hardware is working for everyone from creative hobbyists to people interested in building things for their smartphones to developers inventing products for the next industrial revolution. Adafruit also worked with computer game company Nvidia to help build its Jetson Nano Developer Kit, which lets users run multiple neural networks for artificial intelligence, machine learning and edge computing.

Adafruit also sends its kits to schools to facilitate STEM programs, as kids tend to respond well to learning with physical objects. A project that started as just a fun activity for Fried now has a real purpose.

“I think the mission is to teach people to share technology and show people how much fun and exciting and creative it can be,” she said.