VCs Back Voxel8 to See If a Professor’s Startup Can 3D-Print Money

Xconomy Boston — 

Faculty members seem to be starting more companies these days. It’s particularly noticeable in the Boston area, where entrepreneurial professors are flourishing at MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, and other schools.

One rising startup that fits that mold is Somerville, MA-based Voxel8, a maker of 3D printers that can print electronics. Voxel8 says today it has raised a $12 million Series A round led by Braemar Energy Ventures and Arch Venture Partners. Also participating in the round are Autodesk’s Spark Investment Fund and In-Q-Tel, the venture firm backed by the CIA. Voxel8 previously raised money from Braemar, MassChallenge, and In-Q-Tel, and it has now amassed $14 million-plus in total funding.

The company’s scientific founder and CEO is Jennifer Lewis, a Harvard professor whose research spans materials science, microfluidics, and 3D printing of “functional materials” that can be used to build working devices—not just shapes and models. A primary goal of her group’s materials and processes, Lewis says, is to “build 3D objects that truly integrate form and function.”

Voxel8’s desktop 3D printer works by being able to print both traditional thermoplastics and conductive inks, which can be used to construct wires for electronic components and circuits. The big goal here is to make electronics manufacturing faster, cheaper, and more flexible—and to open up untold possibilities for hardware designers, if it all works at scale.

So far, so good on that front. Voxel8 plans to start shipping its “developer kits” by the end of this year. Each kit includes a 3D printer, printing materials, and proprietary control software. Voxel8 is targeting industrial designers and engineers across a wide range of sectors from aerospace, apparel, and automotive to consumer electronics and defense. For now, the product is for professionals, not hobbyists.

The 14-person company has been able to make some recent hires from iRobot, Philips Medical, and DEKA Research and Development (Dean Kamen’s company) on the hardware and manufacturing side, and from Warby Parker on the software side, Lewis says.

This is Lewis’s first venture-backed startup. She was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from the early 1990s until 2013, when she moved her lab to Harvard. (She’s a UIUC and MIT graduate.) She’s a core faculty member at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which has been making a push to commercialize technologies from its labs.

Jennifer Lewis, Harvard professor and co-founder of Voxel8

Jennifer Lewis, Harvard professor and co-founder of Voxel8

Lewis first met Voxel8 co-founder Daniel Oliver when he was a Blavatnik fellow, after his MBA work at Harvard Business School. The program is designed to pair up HBS grads with Harvard inventors to promote commercialization efforts.

One issue that investors and competitors want to know about is the intellectual property landscape around Voxel8. Lewis seems to be in a good spot, given that her research group has been working on related problems for the past 10 years and has been patenting that work. Voxel8 has licensed about 8-10 patents, from both Harvard and the University of Illinois, and has filed several of its own, Lewis says.

The big question, then, is whether Voxel8 can make money. Or, more to the point, how fast it can make money. Let’s have no illusions: this is a super interesting technology play, but the market is also super early. Voxel8 will have to build the right customer and partner relationships to get its product into the hands of influential users and companies. Then its team will have to be smart and adaptable enough to survive as long as it takes for the market to mature.

Robotics is one intriguing market sector for the startup. Voxel8 has demonstrated 3D-printing a fully functioning quadcopter drone (pictured below); the idea is that a streamlined design can simplify and speed up manufacturing of complex machines and devices. “This is a technology that could expand the design possibilities [for robots] and make them more robust,” Oliver says.

Quadcopter drone made by Voxel8's 3D printer

Quadcopter drone made by Voxel8’s 3D printer

However it plays out, Voxel8 seems to have chosen lead investors who have the patience to watch emerging markets develop. Arch and Braemar also have a track record of investing in prominent faculty founders, such as John Rogers at Illinois and Angela Belcher at MIT.

Voxel8 is currently based at Greentown Labs, a co-working space. The company is in the process of moving into its own space, which consists of 4,000 square feet in a satellite building next to Greentown. The startup’s emphasis now is on expanding its team, honing its manufacturing techniques, and getting its printers out the door.