3D Printing has been getting a lot of attention lately. More people are talking about it, more companies are popping up, and more people are using 3D printers.
I wonder, though, how many out there are truly familiar with 3D printing. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware of the process until I toured Formlabs’ Somerville office and caught up with two of their co-founders: Natan Linder and Maxim Lobovsky, as well as their new Head of Global Marketing and Customer Experience, Colin Raney (who was a Managing Director at IDEO).
Before I dig too deep into their product, let’s spend some time to look at the history of Formlabs.
Natan, Maxim, and David Cranor (another co-founder), met at a “how to make anything” class at MIT in the fall of 2009. As students of the MIT Media Lab, they had the opportunity to experience very-high-end prototyping tools, specifically the 3D printers using stereolithography technology (the industry standard in delivering beautiful, functional parts that plastic extrusion printers just can't match).
However, at this time, printers with such technology were the size of refrigerators and could run anywhere from $60,000 – $300,000.
This three-man team decided they were going to make that technology available and convenient to designers and engineers everywhere. However, in order to do this, they needed to raise some money, of course.
Enter the Mitch Kapor story…
In 2011, Lobovsky and Cranor were out to dinner pitching a potential investor. The two, who lived together at the time, returned home to an email from a friend. The contents of that email would lead to a major reason as to why Formlabs is what it is today.
The email contained a tweet from Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp, and a pioneer of the personal computing industry and investor, who just happened to be sitting nearby. Not only did he hear the pitch, but decided to tweet about it.
Cranor found Kapor’s email and sent him a simple note: “That was us. Hear anything you like?”
Fast-forward a few weeks, Kapor is in Boston and meets the team at their old space. The team tells me, in amusement, that the meeting goes well and they share a great connection to the early computing days. So much so, that they had to take this opportunity to show Kapor a room full of 1980’s computer equipment…
They enter an old freight elevator in the building and as they get to the second floor, the elevator gets stuck.
Here you are, pitching a hopeful investor, trying to show off a room of ancient electronics and a busted elevator gives you some extra time with him (the positive way of seeing it).
Kapor actually called his wife, who he was suppose to meet for dinner, to tell her he may be late, but assures her he’ll be fine as he’s “with 3 MIT students.” Needless to say, a bond was formed, they got out the elevator with some MIT / MacGyver hackwork, took the stairs on the way out and Kapor was in.
Kapor and Joi Ito (Director of MIT Media Lab) were the first two investors in and gave the team enough runway to get to their Kickstarter Campaign - that would change everything.
Before Kickstarter, Formlabs was roughly 10 people in 2 rooms, I’m told. Then this happened…
The team worked countless hours leading up to the campaign of which they set out to raise $100,000 for their Form 1 Printer. To unwind after officially launching on Kickstarter, the team went to a nearby pub and were taking bets on when they would make the first sale – hoping it would come in by noon.
Much to their delight, it took all of two minutes to make the first sale and by lunchtime they were up to $100,000.
Reality quickly set in that they now had to deliver on these orders. And those orders added up to the tune of $3 Million by the end of the thirty-day campaign.
Scaling quickly, they hired and set up a manufacturing partnership and determined to silence the critics around hardware Kickstarter campaigns not coming through, they pushed forward. A challenge, Linder told me, was “continuing to build a company while producing printers. You can’t skip customer feedback or tradeshows just to get a printer delivered.”
By May of 2013 - about 6 months after the Kickstarter campaign closed, they started shipping printers.
Sitting with Linder and Lobovsky, it’s no surprise they pulled this off. Their passion for what they are building was ever-present.
While delivering upon the unexpected, extremely high demand, they also built a company - marketing, sales, logistics, customer support and most importantly, a culture. Something they said was extremely important. They hire smart people, give them some direction and get out of their way.
At the end of 2013 they were “roughly profitable,” Lobovsky says, but continued to see huge potential to build something bigger and raised $19 Million. In their eyes, it was possible to have a 3D printer on every designer’s desktop.
Barry Schuler at DFJ led the round of funding. Schuler, a printer fanatic in his own right, actually purchased the Form 1 on the Kickstarter campaign. Strategically, DFJ was a great fit, as they told me, “DFJ invests in companies like Tesla and they understand what it takes to build difficult things.”
Where is Formlabs at now?
Their product consists of the entire printing process, which from “box to print,” Linder says is “10-15 minutes.” It includes, along with the printer, the software, materials (resin), a finishing kit and support from their team.
The printing is impressively high quality. You can check out a gallery of projects to see the details and the printer’s capabilities, but here are a few to help you get the idea.
The team is pressing forward on improving the overall product. Planning to make it easier to use, improve the quality of what is printed, speeding up the printing process and getting into specialty materials for products like jewelry.
Ultimately, they want to see “how many people we can get this to,” Lobovsky said to me.
At $3,300 the printer is a far cry from the $60,000+ machines they originally worked with at MIT. It’s also extremely feasible for any serious designer or engineer. These days many firms have one or two machines for a large team of designers. Formlabs wants that ratio at 1:1.
Extremely proud, Lobovsky and Linder tell me they are hearing from designers who tell them their printer has changed the way they do business. The process is allowing creators to see a model in their hand and iterate on a daily basis – affordably. Gone are the days of waiting and waiting to see a prototype. Formlabs is making 3D printing, which they say is “the cheapest and fastest way to do things,” a reality for everyone.
(Fun tidbit: Formlabs actually used their Form 1 to help design and build their latest printer, the Form 1+).
With all these ambitious goals come responsibilities. And with that, they need to grow their team. The sentiment in the room was, “If you’re good at what you do there is probably a fit here for you.”
By the end of the year they expect the team to be around 100, from its current 70. They are also in the middle of expanding their already cool space (we’re looking forward to showing it off with an Office Tour once it’s complete). So… all you talented folks out there, take notice, they are hiring - in all departments.
3D printing is a technology the world is adopting and with Formlabs leading the charge, this is an opportunity for talented individuals who want to be a part of their team and, as Linder says:
“Make an impact on how the next 20-30 years are shaped.”