Oakland company bridges writing and tech with the Smartpen

on April 16, 2013

Oakland-based Livescribe, Inc. has taken the ancient art of writing and turned it into a stylish high-tech concept that helps professionals and students maximize their ability to capture information and move it from notepad to computer screen.

“The pen connects two worlds that don’t usually communicate well together—writing and technology,” said Gilles Bouchard, chief executive officer of the privately held, venture capital-backed computer software and peripherals company.

A case filled with awards stands near the reception desk of the company’s offices, which are located near the Oakland Airport. Customer comments praising the product have been turned into artwork that decorates the walls of the offices on the 12th floor on Oakport Street, where 70 employees are at work on the next generation of products connecting the pen and keyboard.

Livescribe introduced its first Smartpen five years ago, bridging the gap between the written word and computer technology. The Smartpen works both by recording audio and by allowing the user to take notes on a special kind of paper, then transfer those notes directly to a computer.

The pen was originally marketed to students who regularly capture information presented in class in multiple formats. Special needs students who require additional assistance logging data also use the pen. The market was later expanded to include business professionals who at the time made up approximately 70 percent of the company’s customer base.

With a click of the record button and the tap of the pen on a piece of paper printed with what the company calls “micro-dots,” the mini computer in the pen records information transcribed onto the page, including drawings and charts, while also capturing audio. The ink on the dotted paper appears in green to indicate that an audio recording is also attached to what is written on the sheet.  Once the information is uploaded to the computer, the user can tap anywhere the green ink appears on the page for audio playback.

While the Echo version of the pen uses a USB cable to transfer data from the pen to the computer, the company’s newest product, the Skypen, is a Wi-Fi pen. It allows users to connect wirelessly and upload content that can be stored in the cloud and distributed to multiple applications and mobile devices using Evernote, software used for notetaking and archiving data.

This technology solves real problems, Bouchard said. Students with physical challenges, and those with test anxiety, say using the Livescribe pen helps them to focus on what the teacher is saying because they can capture more information, he said.  “We have a product that’s very unique,” he said. “Once people know and use it, they really like it. But it’s also so different. It’s not just another PC or another computer or another phone, another camera. It’s a Smartpen.”

More than 1 million Smartpens have sold since they were introduced in 2007. The price of the Sky Wi-Fi Smartpen ranges from $169 for a 2GB pen to $249 for an entire package that includes the pen, cartridges, USB cable and a starter dot paper notebook. The current price for an Echo 2GB is $119.

The goal for the future is to make it look more like a pen, less tech-y in design and easier to use. You turn it on, write and it uploads, Bouchard said.

In the next six to 12 months, consumers can expect to see some of the new technology the company is working on now, Bouchard said, which could translate into a lower price or a lighter or smaller pen.

Livescribe representatives describe the company as “well funded;” they have raised more than $100 million to date. The company’s lead investor is Vantage Point Venture Partners.

Jim Marggraff—the inventor of paper-based computing products such as LeapPad and Fly Pentop—founded the company in 2007. The idea was “bringing paper to the digital world,” Marggraff said in the company’s five-year anniversary video.

The company’s product has evolved quickly over a short period of time. Its technology earned Livescribe a position as a finalist in the category of engineering and design at the first East Bay Innovation Awards in 2012, a nomination that comes directly from the business community.

Bouchard has a background in mechanical engineering and has been in the consumer and technology industry for more then 25 years. He decided to come to Livescribe because the company has “incredible potential,” he said.

“What’s exciting to me about technology is to take something that’s small and exciting and make it into a real business,” Bouchard said. “I think this is what Livescribe is right now. It’s a good business.  A good idea but it’s still in the very early stages. I saw the potential of taking this idea and making it really relevant to a lot of people.”

One possibility, he said, is bridging the gap between the Smartpen’s unique product market and the mobile computing world, since the pens are natural companions to mobile devices. “We have great potential and a great future. I envision a world filled with Smartpens,” Bouchard said.

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