Personal Leadership Development
An Air Force veteran lifts off with a 3D printing business
Samantha Snabes| Sep 27, 2019
Sep 27, 2019
This story is part of "Dream Builders," a series that spotlights how women turn their business aspirations into reality—often defying tremendous odds—and innovate along the way. It is presented by Chase for Business.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a biotech company and co-invented and co-patented hardware for an artificial immune system. Then I went to work for NASA and joined the Air National Guard as an Air Force Reservist.
I also began volunteering at a chapter of Engineers Without Borders which implements engineering projects for underdeveloped communities. My colleagues and I would talk about how crazy it was that aid groups often invested resources in bringing tools that often were the wrong voltage or a poor cultural fit or couldn't be maintained. We wanted the people we met to be independent and to have the tools to be successful.
A group of like-minded friends and I got the idea to make a toilet-sized 3D printer that could ultimately be powered by garbage. We wanted it to be able to print functional items—birthing stools, prosthetics—and have a starting price of under $10,000. Our goal was, and is, to make 3D printing more accessible to everyone.
Every aspect of having a hardware company has been challenging, and to do it with a very small team is humbling. When we started, we didn't know how to do inventory management or packaging. And we didn't have enough capital to create a prototype.
Think creatively about funding
Getting the initial funding was tricky. We started by applying to a bunch of challenges online, and were accepted into Start-Up Chile, a seed accelerator created by the Chilean Government. We received $40,000 equity-free for participating. I quit my job and moved to Santiago. The money was a blessing because hardware is very expensive.
While I was in residence, we ran a Kickstarter campaign. We'd taken our prototype printer to the South by Southwest festival, and a reporter wrote a story about us. We reached our funding goal in 27 hours, and ended up raising $250,000. We used that money to lease a factory and started taking pre-orders for our initial model.
"Widely sharing our story opened us up to communities we otherwise wouldn't have touched."
Share your story
Now, re:3D's printer, known as Gigabot, is in 53 countries and across multiple industries—education, manufacturing, health care and more. Our customers are Fortune 500 companies, hospitals and federal agencies. The appetite for 3D industrial printing has really expanded beyond the communities we were initially trying to serve.
When we decided to make a new version of Gigabot that was fueled by pellets made of reclaimed plastic, we started sharing our story at startup events, and received over $1.2 million. Beyond winning prize money to fund our R&D, widely sharing our story opened us up to communities we otherwise wouldn't have touched. Our goal now is to build version 2.0 of "Gigabot X."
We also opened an outpost in Puerto Rico, before being hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in Houston and San Juan. We had a vote to decide if we were going to pull out of Puerto Rico. We didn't. We dug deeper and started doing 3D printing for free in support of the hurricane recovery, for hospitals and schools. We even explored 3D printed "bee hotels" and an artificial reef. It was a wonderful experience, and now we're really thriving there.
Let yourself be guided by customers
I attribute our success to the people who put in a lot of sweat equity, and continue to do so, and our customers who have been quick to give us guidance and feedback. It's inspiring to hear their vision for the future. My military experience helps me prioritize based on our customers' needs.
It's been a real journey. We're just scrappy entrepreneurs. It comes down to working hard, being consistent, and letting your community guide where you go.