We started this year wanting to stress the innovation that is occurring in electronics, often below the radar of the masses. Twelve months later, we find even ourselves a bit stunned at the depth and breadth of what we uncovered.

In many ways, it felt like the Year of the Startup. Recessions have a way of doing that. We highlighted a good number of them, including SnapEDA, Upverter, CircuitHub and others. We enjoyed talking with OpenP+P, and learning the stunning numbers of hobbyists that are sowing the seeds of a technical revolution.

It was a year equally remarkable for the players who struggled. Will Endicott Interconnect make it? If so, it’s hard to believe it will look much like it did even a few short years ago, a marvel of end-to-end chip package to completed enclosure engineering prowess.

Change is inevitable. As late as 2001, Google was a footnote to the Yahoo home page. Now it’s one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and making something more than a dent in the hardware business. Blackberry was still Research in Motion, and the dominant player in the smartphone business, the device everybody had to have. Motorola and Nokia were duking it out for global handset share. In some ways, perhaps it’s more surprising that IBM and Cisco were top dogs in the 1990s and remain so today.

Startups start with an idea. Those ideas are as numerous and varied, but what they all need is capital and business savvy. Most pay a stiff price for that funding and expertise. Tech incubators are typically anchored by investment banks, hedge funds and angels, all of which extract the proverbial pound (or more) of flesh in exchange for helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. This month we highlight a novel approach: the not-for-profit accelerator.

MassChallenge is a remarkable entity. Founded by a pair of brilliant but disenchanted Bain Consulting expats, it has quickly grown into a major player on the accelerator scene, pairing engineering wits with experts in marketing, sales and seed funding. It’s an MBA from a firehose.

More than that, and unlike other accelerators, MassChallenge has teamed with companies with expertise in component sourcing and PCB manufacture. That’s a huge advantage for the legions of computer scientists and electrical engineers who have software and design schematic expertise but lack printed circuit board design and assembly know-how.

Which brings us to the CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY EMS Company of the Year. Lightspeed Manufacturing is not a major player in EMS. In fact, it’s far from it. The Boston-area company’s revenue runs below $10 million, most of which comes from component and assembly rework. It will never be confused with Foxconn or Flextronics.

But girth isn’t everything. When I first met Lightspeed founder and president Rich Breault in 2005, he said his goal was to prime the entrepreneurial pump that is the Boston tech scene, in the hope of finding the next Amar Bose or Richard Egan, someone with the vision and drive to take an idea and turn it into the next Bose Corp. or EMC. Two years ago, the opportunity Breault has envisioned came to being. Lightspeed outfitted the MassChallenge’s workspace with a 3D printer, soldering tools and – as important – Breault’s own expertise. In doing so, he has helped several companies make their first prototypes. The founder of one of those companies adorns this month’s cover. Francisco Aguilar conceived of Bounce Imaging after the earthquake in Haiti devastated that country. The tragedy inspired Aguilar to design a device that could be used to explore structurally questionable or otherwise potentially dangerous areas without exposing human responders to extra risk.

Lightspeed is building Bounce’s Explorer, a hand-sized orb outfitted with sensors and cameras that has garnered attention from Time Magazine and Popular Science. And Breault has joined Bounce’s board of directors.

(As an aside, Aguilar’s invention is all the more urgent in the wake of the typhoon that wiped out great swaths of the Philippines and, as of press time, was reported to have killed thousands. Ayala, the parent company of the EMS firm Integrated Microelectronics Inc., has set up a donation channel for victims; visit http://circuitsassembly.com/blog/?p=3825 for details.)

We highlight Lightspeed, then, not just because of its lengthy history of success, but because of its vision and execution, which reminds us yet again how much of what we call genius has its foundation in sweat equity.

Most startups will fail, including perhaps many of the ones we wrote about this year. That’s OK. We learn from that, and we build even better, stronger companies in their wake. Lightspeed is doing its part to reduce the odds of those startups’ failure, but more important, it has spawned a model that might be profitable for many a design and assembly specialist that isn’t afraid of taking a chance on an unknown – or a bunch of them.

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