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January 2, 2014

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Gig Tank delves into 3D printing for 2014

3D PRINTING CONTINUES MORPHING from another headline-generating “wow” technology into a ubiquitous game-changer.  With CoLab’s December announcement that the 2014 edition of the Gig Tank start-up accelerator will have a triple focus on 3D printing, along with healthcare and smart grid power distribution, this technology moves strongly into the mainstream. 

In the first two iterations of Gig Tank, the heavy lifting of guiding the entrepreneurial teams fell mostly on CoLab. This year, teams focusing on smart grid technology will be guided by EPB, which created Chattanooga’s gig-per-second Internet to make its own smart grid possible. Project Lift, a Florida healthcare accelerator created by Chattanooga entrepreneur David McDonald, will work with healthcare innovators, particularly in telehealth and healthcare analytics.

“Those two partners allowed us to have three verticals, all being supported by CoLab,” said CoLab Entrepreneur-In-Residence Mike Bradshaw. “We’ll be logistically handling everything.”

It won’t all be 3D printing when entrepreneurs take up residence in Chattanooga next summer, but the technology that keeps making more and more items printable not only seems likely to steal the show, but also ties into the other two tracks, since many of those 3D printing headlines are about man-made body parts, like ears, organs and teeth. And 3D printers use a lot of electricity.

“How are electrical distribution facilities going to be affected by having a multitude of machines out there gulping power 50 kilowatts at a time?” asks Bradshaw.  

3D printing—also called “additive manufacturing” because most printers work by building up layers of material—is a passion for Bradshaw, who organized a Maker Day exhibition last year that showcased the technology on the Fourth Floor of the downtown library. But he straddles an increasingly blurry line between the technology’s blue-sky promise and its potential to change things right now. 

On the one hand, he calls it “a really elegant manufacturing technique that puts us that much closer to being able to directly put our thoughts into matter.” But he embraces Gig Tank 2014’s more prosaic promise of here-and-now transformation.

“Because of what Gig Tank is and what it is not—it’s not a research organization—what we have to do is to build businesses that can commercialize their ideas quickly in the time frame of the program, get a pilot going, and really show that they are investible at the angel level and that they have a chance of growing to something that could be interesting to venture capital investors,” says Bradshaw.

He sees immediate short-term potential in the integration of 3D printing into the supply chains of large companies. General Electric, for example, is already 3D printing 50,000 aircraft parts. Bradshaw sees a near future in which those parts could be made more cheaply using a network of distributed 3D printers connected by high-speed Internet bandwidth. 

“We have this great capacity of the Gig to see how a manufacturer can connect with a cluster of machines and get parts into their supply chain in a much more cost-effective manner,” he says. “If you’re looking at micro manufacturing, where you’ve got a distributed network of 3D printers, when you start looking at mediating demand and capability, then the Gig starts coming to the forefront.”

Bradshaw has gotten interest from national and local manufacturers, including PlayCore, which has volunteered its production facility in Fort Payne, Ala. as a resource for Gig Tank teams. Other partners include UTC, Chattanooga State and the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility is involved through the presence of one of its employees, Doug Speight, who is on entrepreneurial leave from the lab and will serve as the director of Gig Tank’s 3D printing track.

“He is building a 3D printing business himself at the same time on a national scale, so he’s an example of what we’re trying to do with Gig Tank,” says Bradshaw. “3D printing businesses at angel-funded levels are coming into being right now in large numbers. Nobody has explored that in an accelerator.”

CoLab is already recruiting nationally for Gig Tank participants, primarily focusing on three groups: business insiders who have lived and breathed industrial 3D printing and have business ideas they want to develop on their own, 3D printing researchers who want to connect with entrepreneurs to develop their ideas, and 3D printing hobbyists who are ready to leverage their passion into a business.

“Additive manufacturing has been building for 25 years and is coming into its own right now,” says Bradshaw. “It’s going to be realized over high-speed networks. We’re starting it here, and we’ll join a long list of forward-thinking areas of the country that are thinking about the same things. We’re just doing them first.”

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January 2, 2014

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