3D printing is catnip for the investor angels.
This year’s Gig Tank, the summer business accelerator run by CoLab, zeroed in on three vertical industry sectors: health care, the smart electrical grid and 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Each of those three tracks included interesting companies with serious prospects in their respective fields. But in 3D printing, Gig Tank broke some ground on a national scale.
I spoke with CoLab’s executive director, Mike Bradshaw, as the hybrid accelerator program was in the final approach to its July 29 Demo Day, when 11 companies made pitches to angel investors assembled for the occasion. But Gig Tank itself was also making some waves in the rapidly developing 3D printing world.
“I’ve had very knowledgeable people in this space say this notion of connecting angel-level investment opportunities to 3D printing is such an obvious and clear idea it’s really startling that it’s never been done before,” says Bradshaw, who describes this year’s Gig Tank as a hybrid between a hardware accelerator focused on machines and the broader approach of business, technology or software accelerators.
“And the beautiful thing about this was it was an opportunity to connect our manufacturing legacy with this new identity as a high-tech mecca that Chattanooga is now,” he adds. “You put those two things together over the 3D printing space and you get something that hasn’t been done.”
Bradshaw outlines a few signals that Gig Tank is onto something big with 3D printing.
First Signal: The nation’s two leading makers of 3D printers donated some of their best machines for the summer.
Housed in the Public Library’s 4th Floor maker space are two top-of-the-line polymer printers from 3D Systems and Stratasys, machines that typically would be found in industrial companies using them for rapid prototyping.
“You take a look at what’s sitting up in the library,” says Bradshaw. “There’s a few hundred thousand dollars of equipment. Those companies just don’t do that, but they did it for us.”
Second Signal: Dozens of 3D printing startups from all over the country applied to participate in Gig Tank.
“We don’t have $150,000 in seed money we’ll give you just because you came in, we have $15,000,” Bradshaw says. “We have many, many wonderful qualities, but we’re not surrounded by people who can wave a pen and a billion dollars appears in your checking account. You know, the San Francisco startup story that’s so attractive—it’s catnip to entrepreneurs.”
What Gig Tank offers, he says, “is much more hands on, more boutique. It’s a unique experience, but it requires an awful lot of work to stand it up. And we put it together [asking] is this really going to resonate out there? From the quality of teams applying...yes.”
Third Signal: When Pando Daily published an article about Gig Tank in June, executives at traditional printing companies started calling. R&D executives from Hewlett-Packard and Konica-Minolta spent considerable time interviewing Gig Tank’s 3D printing teams. Both companies have recently announced they are entering 3D printing.
Bradshaw is careful to avoid ascribing any specific goals to those companies, but he notes, “This is a really mergers-and-acquisitions-driven business. The growth of these companies is driven by going out there and acquiring small companies that are doing things that manage to rise above.”
What did they find attractive about Gig Tank?
“It’s the concentration of 3D printing innovators in one space,” Bradshaw says. “They’ve never seen anything like that.”
Bradshaw cites General Electric’s Leading Edge Engine Project—which has replaced an aircraft engine valve that had 18 components and was subjected to high mechanical stress with a single part that is 3D-printed out of titanium—as evidence that 3D printing is crossing a line to become part of general manufacturing.
“You can see this dawning,” he says. “It’s not just a future play. It’s real, immediate opportunity now that can be explored by entrepreneurs that can be aided by these traditional accelerator processes.”
Gig Tank has tried to connect two typically separated groups: the garage innovators who build companies from scratch, and the major research institutions and big industrial producers who can invest in research and development.
“What we attempted to do was to connect those two, to use the energy coming out of the maker movement and connect it with the serious at-scale manufacturers’ understanding of the way the world actually works out there in hard goods manufacturing, and that is unique,” says Bradshaw. “This is the beginning of something that’s going to be happening across the country.”