What do Gear Shifts and HVAC Have in Common?

Airset and Archer Components’ Devin Carlson explains

Q&A with Devin Carlson, Co-founder of Archer Components and Airset – Video by Andy Rabago

While hospital ventilation and cycling may not seem like a natural pairing, Devin Carlson knows otherwise.

Fresh from the 2021 Startup Investment and Community Capital Expo (SICC)AirSet Co-Founder Devin Carlson is also one of the co-founders of Archer Components, home of the fully programmable DX1 bike gear shifter.

Carlson and his close friend and co-founder Brandon Archer pitched Archer Components at Startup Challenge 2017, placing second in the competition. Four years later, they have developed Airset, a pitched programmable HVAC system for medical settings, which could be a game-changer in COVID times.

So what do Archer Components and Airset have in common? 

“At the core, it’s micro-robotics,” said Carlson. “Whether it’s for HVAC, or AgTech, or bikes, or medical tech, it’s really about controlling this servo based on these inputs, harvesting that data, and displaying it in a meaningful way.” 

Essentially, a servo is a motor-driven system with a built-in feedback element. Servos are used in heavy machinery, power steering in vehicles, robotics, and numerous electronic devices. 

We sat down with Carlson to learn about his path from teacher to entrepreneur, his experiences at Startup Challenge and the SICC Expo, and his company’s products that can help simplify processes for a safer and more efficient future.

​​iiED: What can you tell me about your entrepreneurial journey? 

Devin: I was a mathematics and economics teacher for a long time, about ten years or so, and had tried to start a couple of different little businesses here and there, but nothing really ever took. I was teaching abroad in Ecuador and came back to Santa Cruz, kind of just suddenly. Things kind of fell apart with the government down there, and we had to leave. I wasn’t working, and a good friend of mine from university came to me and said, “Hey, check out this cool thing that I’ve got that I’ve built with bikes.”

So that’s how we started Archer. We said, “This is an opportunity, this is something we can do, this is some unmet need. And so, let’s make a good go of it.” I was a stay-at-home Dad with my three-year-old daughter and was just kind of tinkering around in the garage for a while. And then it’s grown and become an actual business. 

We developed this great team of product designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and software designers. I’ve been kind of at the helm of it all, basically orchestrating all of these different disparate, really geeky aspects of this business to bring it all together into a cohesive thing.

Meanwhile, Brandon, the co-founder of Archer, was still running his other business as an HVAC design engineer, building HVAC systems for hospitals just day in and day up with a team of 20 people. He introduced me to a couple of those folks who started talking about this air balancing problem. 

So we were like, “Okay, here is another thing that is hardware, it’s software, it’s robotics, it’s sensing, can we bring all of this together using similar aspects of the same team, similar aspects of technology?” 

We started looking at doing it as part of Archer and saying, “Okay. Archer is going to be both bikes and HVAC.” And anytime we said that people were like, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why are you doing it that way?” We started a new company to silo things off, and that is AirSet.

Once you get the bug, once you get the, “Hey, I’m my own boss, and I’m running my own thing,” then it’s kind of hard not to do that, so here we are.

iiED: Archer Components placed second at Startup Challenge in 2017. Could you tell me about your experience?

Devin: It was so rad. We were still prototyping then, we hit the market in February 2018. We were still a prototype, still 3D printing, we hadn’t cut tools. It was pretty early on.

Startup Challenge was awesome. I met people who connected me with others who had a place to sublet. We moved in four years ago, and we’re still here expanding and metastasizing as we speak. 

My mentor Pat Riley and I forged this great relationship— we still talk all the time and he does a lot of work for us in terms of IP generation and such. I don’t think that I would’ve had that experience had we not been forged together in that scenario. I miss the Otter Tank. That was a really good time.

iiED: And your latest company, AirSet, is fresh out of the SICC Expo. How was that experience? Did you meet any potential investors?

Devin: Yeah, totally. We made some really good connections with folks with commercial real estate experience. One of the big things that I touched on in our pitch at SICC was that we really need a place where we can install this thing to test it, and understand how it works? Using it in our workshop shows us that it does work, but it’s not the same. Having a commercial space is critical, and we met some folks who said they have a spot where we can test the system. It’s huge for us to make that kind of transition into the next step.

iiED: Could you tell us more about how AirSet and how it works?

Devin: AirSet is effectively an automatic airflow damper that controls airflow at a very high level of granularity for hospital and healthcare HVAC systems. There are state-mandated rules, occupancy rules, about the amount of air that goes into each room. Each room classification has their own air exchanges, their own pressure differentials, and all of those things are really tightly regulated. 

So in normal times, that’s important, right? In COVID times it’s even more important because hospitals are reconfiguring constantly. To get air balance and airflow right in a hospital care system, they need a whole team of licensed air balancers, folks who hold a specialty license that allows them to operate machinery that measures how much air is coming out of that vent.

They adjust one vent then they do it over at another vent, and another vent. But by changing those two vents, they have to come back to this one, and they have to readjust this one. In order to get an entire zone dialed in, maybe six or seven rooms, it takes them all day. It costs about 15 grand and then no one can move or open any doors for it to remain balanced.

AirSet automates that process using a thermal dispersion sensor. It’s a sensor array, four different sensors that sense how much air is flowing through the vent, and a rotational servo that opens and closes the space to allow air to flow correctly, right. We can say one vent should allow 250 cubic feet per minute and another 450 cubic feet per minute, and dial those things in. We tell them, “Stay at 250, you stay at 450,” and then they just do that. They adjust, and it’s a very slow frequency thing. 

When a potential or a possible COVID patient comes into the ER, they put them in a room, and use big exhaust fans, industrial blowers to create a negative pressure room, meaning more air is leaving the room than coming in. 

It’s rough for the patient in a hospital with an industrial blower fan in their ear. The other issue is, by doing that, you have completely changed the pressure differentials in the entire zone because now you’re sucking more air through the system. The manual volume dippers have not been adjusted, everything is out of tune, and it changes the entire zone. There’s a massive need for this system.

iiED: Can you explain how Archer Components’s DX1 system works? 

Devin: There are two parts to the DX1. There is an electronic shifter, with what’s called a linear servo, and the linear servo is just going to take rotational motion and change it into a linear back and forth motion. 

We’ve created an opportunity to pull a shift cable using the servo. On a traditional mechanical shifter on your handlebar, you’ve got the little ratchet mechanism up there, the shifter pot. It’s turning a little thing that’s spring-loaded and releasing that little thing, and basically pulling a length of shift cable, and then it’s pulling the cable at the derailleur. Every time the derailleur gets pulled a little bit, it in or out and changes gears to different gears. 

What we’ve done is say, “Let’s take that ratchet mechanism on the handlebar. Let’s replace that with a servo, let’s replace that with robotics. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t matter how many gears you have. It doesn’t matter whether the derailleur and the cassette are different manufacturers, or different pull ratios, or whatever. This thing is fully programmable, there is no library of data in here. 

So by teaching it each one of those spots, this thing knows where to go to precisely change each gear. There is another piece of electronics, which has two switches and this sends a signal to increment or decrement your current position. 

iiED: Who can benefit from using the DX1?

Devin: Well, first off there’s folks with range-of-motion issues in their hands and wrists. So a mechanical shifting thing, or a turning twisting grip shift, those are just kind of beyond their abilities, right? It hurts them, and that’s a big part of our business right there.

Another demographic is people with mobility issues, even paralysis, who use handcycles or full layback cycles. Those folks are using their hands to cycle their gears or to cycle their pedals. To change gears, they either have to take one hand off and change gears, or they’ve got cables coming off of that crankset. And those cables are long, and they break. So if those folks have just a wireless little transmitter they can shift gears really, really easily. 

The final area is bike riders who are looking for a high-performance shifting system that is tuneable? Normally when you have a bike and it’s mechanically shifted, there’s what’s called a barrel adjuster, and a barrel adjuster is going to tune. It’s going to basically pull the entire cable in or out just a little bit, and that moves the whole carriage in and out with respect to the cassette. If one gear is out of alignment, you’re basically moving the entire thing to try and tune them one gear and all the other gears are going to get out of alignment. 

What we allow is a single gear to be tuned. So if gear six is the issue, you can tune gear six specifically. So when you’re mountain biking, and you crash, and you bend your derailleur, and the whole thing’s kind of wonky, you can tune each gear back, and get your system shifting smoothly, perfectly every time. So that’s the shifter, that’s our big core product for Archer. 

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