SOLS Puts $11.1M from Carmelo Anthony, Others to Work in 3D-Printed Footwear
Is there a real mainstream play finally in the making for 3D printing?
The startup recently closed on a Series B round of $11.1 million from investors that include Lux Capital (a frequent backer of 3D printing technology), Founders Fund, Tenaya Capital, and New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony’s fund, Melo7 Tech Partners.
The company uses scans of people’s feet to create 3D-printed, custom insoles and medical orthotics for consumers’ shoes. Thus far, SOLS’s products have largely been sold through doctors, who scan their patients’ feet with the company’s technology that uses computer vision and machine learning, founder and CEO Kegan Schouwenburg says.
Custom orthotics for addressing medical issues have long been available through doctors. There is an opportunity to bring that kind of personalization to the masses as shoe insoles, she says.
SOLS has a couple of pop-up shops in New York and New Jersey, testing out the possibility of its own retail locations. The latest funding will go toward scaling up for direct-to-consumer sales booked to start in May, Schouwenburg says.
Production for SOLS is done through a temporary facility in Texas, developed with a German company called EOS, one of the early investors in SOLS. The full production site will be built out over two years, Schouwenburg says.
Thus far, SOLS has raised $19.3 million in funding since its start in 2013. The company is hiring in engineering, sales, and production to add to its current group of 50 employees, Schouwenburg says. By the end of the year, the staff could double, she says.
Initially, Schouwenburg wanted to build technology for fast customization of footwear, and she foresees SOLS eventually producing entire shoes, not just insoles. However, that will take quite a lot of work, she admits.
Athletes who want footwear that helps them on the field and folks who use orthotics for medical issues make up the sweet spot of customers for SOLS right now—and Schouwenburg has aspirations of reaching an even wider market.
Embedding sensors within insoles is one of the projects underway at the company. The sensors would transmit real-time information to the wearer to help improve their bicycling rhythm, golf swings, and other types of performance. “I would love to open a showroom in New York where we show the Willy Wonka version of the future in customized footwear,” she says. That is not likely in the cards, though, for 2015.
Making custom insoles through 3D printers is being done by others as well, so SOLS finds itself in a deep footrace to become a major player. For instance, a European consortium of companies and academics, collectively called A-Footprint, is developing production of orthotics through 3D printing. Australia’s 3D Orthotics also makes customized orthotics through 3D printing.
Custom footwear is one use for 3D printing that takes the technology beyond creating prototypes, figurines, and tchotchkes. Couture fashion with 3D-printed dresses and even shoes have hit runways before, but those examples have largely been to demonstrate the possibilities for the technology.
There is a bit of a reckoning happening in 3D printing, as it tries to firm up its identity and find practical use in the mainstream. At the moment, there are camps of 3D printing that focus on consumer desktop printers for homes, and another side with industrial-scale printing for businesses. So far, neither approach has truly taken off yet.
The hefty investments going into 3D printing have put the industry on notice to make it all worthwhile, Schouwenburg says. She thinks SOLS can scale up and prove the technology’s merits. “Everybody is looking for the Holy Grail application,” she says.