Founder Friday

Benjamin Males and Nancy Tilbury of XO

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we learn about the people behind the Highway1 startups.

Today’s founders are from XO: CEO Benjamin Males and Creative Director Nancy Tilbury.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My background is in mechanical engineering. I studied at the Imperial College in London, specializing in designing nuclear reactors. Straight after, I went to the Royal College of Art and studied design product, a famous course which doesn’t have any particular focus; it’s a combination of furniture and product design. I’ve always been interested in both the creative arts and technology, and I figured the best way of joining these  together was to do a really hardcore science-based degree and an arts-based degree and join them together myself.

I studied at the Royal College of Art and specialized in fashion/women’s wear. I graduated some time before Benjamin, but had the opportunity to work for Philips while they founded their Wearables 1.0 program. I helped Philips establish themselves in the smart textiles/wearable electronics space, as it was called then. While I was there, we worked with different partners such as Nike, Levi’s, and the Affective Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab.

studio xo gallery 03

Where did the idea for this business come from?

While I was at Philips, we did some far futures work. One project in particular was a dress that read your emotions and blushed. Lady Gaga ended up wearing the dress for the Born This Way campaign. After that, Philips was approached by the Black Eyed Peas, and that’s where I met Ben. He was running a hybrid engineering collective, and we merged our consultancies — that’s how XO was born.

We got asked to build these stage pieces for the Black Eyed Peas. They had a lot of stuff that was happening onstage, including the biggest LED screen that had ever been built, and you could see during rehearsals that was just disappearing visually; he and his stylist said “We need to bring some of this technology onto the body, because otherwise these artists just disappear.” So that was our brief: to bring attention back to the body of the performer.

During shows, we stood aside the stage looking out at crowds of 80,000 people and thought to ourselves: “It’s great to dress the artist, but we want to dress the crowd too.” If we were doing merch as well, we could give people a piece of the magic to take home. I suppose that was the starting point, philosophically, for the company.

How did you find out about Highway1?

It’s kind of strange: everywhere we went and everything we bumped into as we started to talk about the hardware we wanted to develop and scale seemed to lead here, as if we were on a yellow brick road.

I had a lot of what we now know are referred to as “coffee meetings” with investors; we got some great feedback. There was a lot of excitement about our vision, and Highway1 was recommended by three or four people; as Nancy said, it all pointed here.

What are your goals at Highway1?

We want to walk away with a robust prototype of the product we will bring to market, and set a slightly different business culture for XO. We need to move from an agency model to a business model where we can create multiples of things.

More specifically, what we’ve identified is the need to build a brand that’s sustainable in this space. Hopefully that will communicate to our partners on Demo Day that we have a little bit of magic we can scale. Our long term ambition is to follow in the footsteps of Beats by Dre. What they were to millennials, XO can be to Gen Z.

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