Alumnus designs watch that’s earned $10.2 million even before its launch

The heart of the Pebble watch, which has gathered more investment money than any Kickstarter project in the crowd-funding website’s history, was designed and built by a 2009 Case Western Reserve University graduate.

Andrew Witte, who earned a computer engineering degree here, is the brains behind the electronic hardware and operating system for the prototype wristwatch. The Pebble wirelessly connects to an iPhone or Android smartphone and runs apps, alerts wearers to incoming calls, emails and messages, sheds water and tells time on a programmable e-paper face that shows updates like text messages.

The project received $10.2 million from more than 68,000 customers who want the watch—the highest amount raised in Kickstarter history and a number that caused the founders to close the fundraising a week before it officially stopped. The unprecedented opening of wallets has been written up in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and too many Internet sites to count, including online behemoths like Mashable, SlashGear and Engadget.

“I’ve watched other product development success stories on Kickstarter and I believe our success is really just another example of a growing trend toward launching startups by going directly to customers for funding,” Witte said in an email. He’s on the road this week. “It’s really exciting to be a part of this movement.”

Case Western Reserve professors have been watching the hoopla over the growing investments and cheering from the sidelines at the success and Witte’s contributions.

“I really thought of him as a software engineer, but his hardware appears just as good,” said Franis Merat, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“He was always in class, always involved in projects, but he never seemed like a startup person,” Merat continued. “This is great.”

Witte was the Undergraduate Student Government vice president of information services and heavily involved in student projects. He worked on the Tesla Orchestra, which is an enormous Telsa coil that emits pulses of homegrown lightning to music. He also helped build a waterfall swing, which was an oversized swing set with a slew of sensors and valves. A computer taking in sensory information would halt water at the valves, just long enough for the swinger to swing through the fall and not get soaked.

As lead engineer on the watch project, Witte coordinates efforts with the team’s industrial designer and mechanical engineer who developed the physical aspects of the watch. He’s also working with smartphone app developers who created the Pebble companion app for iPhone and Android.

Recently the startup announced it is partnering with RunKeeper, an app used to track workouts.

On foot or on bike, wearers can use the watch to access the GPS on their smartphone to display speed, distance, pace and more. During a workout, exercisers also can use the watch to control the music they listen to, instead of pulling their smartphones out of a sleeve or pocket.

Pebble Technology also is working with Freecaddie to create a golf app that works on more than 25,000 courses worldwide. A glance at the wrist will tell a golfer the distance to the green.

The group hopes to announce more partnerships with additional vendors before they begin delivering watches, likely in the fall.

Pebble Technology originally sought $100,000 to help them make the Pebble watch a reality.

With the millions of dollars already committed, the opportunities to innovate increase—as well as the obligation to deliver superior results. Witte isn’t daunted in the least.

“We’ll be working hard to make sure the Pebble is very well polished, as well as making sure our manufacturing process is capable of meeting the growing demand for the Pebble,” he said. “We’ve already added five people to the Pebble team since the Kickstarter launch and plan to continue.”