Where it's based: San Francisco
When it was founded: 2013
Why it's Fierce: Jesse Robbins is hoping to emulate some giant names in the mobile industry: Nextel, BlackBerry and iPhone. Each of these companies created a service that was so compelling that users worked to sign up their friends, family and coworkers. "Once you got on that network, it changed the way you work," Robbins said, pointing to Nextel's Direct Connect push-to-talk service, BlackBerry's email service and the iPhone's iMessage offering.
Robbins is CEO and co-founder of Orion, formerly OnBeep. The company last year raised $6.25 million in venture capital funding "to make beautiful wearable communication devices that unite groups and allow teams to collaborate more fluidly in real time." This year, Orion's 35 full-time employees are working to make that promise a reality.
And already, the company has some significant progress to show for its efforts: Orion began shipping its Onyx device in December. The clip-on, voice-only gadget pairs via Bluetooth with users' iOS and Android smartphones and allows them to instantly communicate with others on the "Orion Network."
"It's gotten a really incredible response," Robbins said, though he declined to provide specific sales of Orion's Onyx, which is currently available on the company's website starting at $298.99 for three of the gadgets. Robbins said that users include bike racing teams who use the device to stay in touch on long rides; families who are spread across amusement parks or other attractions; and, most recently, catering companies that need to coordinate workers across various locations. "Every time people connect they find new and great use cases for it," Robbins said.
Thus, Orion is riding the white-hot wearables trend in the mobile industry, crystalized by the new Apple Watch. But the company is providing a service--group voice communications--that has been in demand in one form or another since the days of Nextel Direct Connect.
What's next: Robbins said Orion is preparing for a significant fourth quarter.
First, he said the company is working to develop premium, value-added services for Onyx users including session recording, encryption services and integration with business apps.
Also in the fourth quarter, Orion plans to release Ruby, a wearable voice-communications gadget targeted at the fashion-conscious. "Ruby is really our luxury product," Robbins said. The device "has opened up a lot of conversations for us, particularly in the New York fashion world."
Finally, Orion is also working to expand distribution beyond its website. Robbins hinted that Orion's recent hiring of business consultant and former GigaOM analyst Whitey Bluestein could help the company create relationships with wireless carriers, possibly for distribution.
But Robbins acknowledged Orion's challenges. He noted it is difficult for smaller startups to gain the attention necessary to build a substantial base of users. And he said hardware startups face difficulty in financing their manufacturing. "It's still quite capital intensive," he said.
"Those are the sorts of hurdles that you have to get over," Robbins said. "We have pretty big ambitions."