Stratasys, Big VCs Bet $14M on 3D Printing Startup Desktop Metal

Sometimes an idea and a track record are enough to score big bucks from venture capitalists.

The latest example: Desktop Metal, a nearly two-month-old 3D printing startup in Cambridge, MA, just announced $14 million in its first funding round—despite not having a working prototype or even a website.

The 11-person company includes MIT materials science and engineering professors; co-founders and key former employees of lithium-ion battery company A123 Systems; former engineers with 3D computer-aided design software provider SolidWorks; and a former vice president of Kiva Systems, a Boston-area robotics company acquired by Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

Co-founder and CEO Ric Fulop says Desktop Metal’s Series A round was led by NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, and Lux Capital, with participation from 3D printing giant Stratasys, Boston hardware investor and prototype shop Bolt, Founder Collective, Data Collective, and angel investors.

Desktop Metal’s backers are betting that Fulop and company can execute a bold vision that, if it works, could mark a leap forward for the emerging 3D printing industry.

The computing sector radically shrank the size and price of its hardware over the past 50 years, moving from giant mainframes used only by governments and big businesses to handheld devices in everyone’s pockets. The 3D printing sector is trying to do the same thing. It has made progress on that front with desktop machines that cost a few thousand dollars and can print objects made of lighter materials, like plastic and paper. Those items are often used as molds for creating metal parts.

But the industry hasn’t figured out how to build (relatively) cheap, small 3D printers that can kick out metal parts. That’s what Desktop Metal aims to do. “We’re trying to make a machine that you can buy, plug it in, and use it in your office,” Fulop (pictured above) says in a phone interview.

That could be a big deal for manufacturers, engineers, hobbyists, and others. Currently, Fulop says, the typical metal-making 3D printers are bulky, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, suck up massive amounts of gases and industrial-scale electricity in order to run, require permits to operate, and use powerful—and potentially dangerous—lasers.

“Metal 3D printing has been out of the reach of most companies because it’s very expensive and slow,” he says. “We’re developing a system that’s very fast and more accessible.”

Fulop is mum on specifics about Desktop’s proposed technology, although he did say it would employ a “completely different” process that won’t use lasers.

He says it’s too early to talk price or timeline for release. Desktop Metal intends to grow quickly, though—he says it might hire another 20 people in the next six months or so.

Fulop’s career path has crossed back and forth between running companies and investing in them. He says he has founded six companies spanning software, semiconductors, wireless communications, energy storage, and now 3D printing. The most famous of those ventures is A123, which raised about $380 million in a 2009 IPO.

Fulop left A123 in 2010 and joined North Bridge Venture Partners, which was A123’s biggest investor. At the time, the company had a $1.5 billion market cap and employed 1,800 people, according to Fulop’s LinkedIn profile. Two years later, A123 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and in 2013 most of its assets were sold to China-based auto parts manufacturer Wanxiang Group.

Desktop Metal is the first 3D printing company that Fulop has led, but he got to know the industry at North Bridge. He led the firm’s investments in MarkForged, which makes 3D printers that produce parts made of carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar; and Onshape, a developer of cloud-based 3D computer-aided design software. Fulop stepped down from the boards of both companies in September, according to his LinkedIn profile, but he says he will remain involved with other company boards.

Fulop declined to comment on what’s happening at North Bridge, which has had several partners leave in the past year and recently stopped fundraising for its latest early-stage fund.

Fulop says he wanted to work on Desktop Metal because he’s an entrepreneur at heart and he feels passionate about what the company is working on.

“When I was a VC, I was looking to fund something in metal 3D printing for some time,” Fulop says. “I looked at every approach conceivable. I saw some of the limitations and decided there was a better way to do it.”

Desktop Metal team

Desktop Metal team

Others team members working at Desktop Metal include Yet-Ming Chiang, an A123 co-founder and MIT materials science and engineering professor; former A123 engineer Jonah Myerberg; Rick Chin, an early engineer with SolidWorks; Chris Schuh, who leads MIT’s materials science and engineering department; and Matt Verminski, who was Kiva’s vice president of hardware engineering.

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