Dan Shapiro Needs Help Building a Replicator at Seattle Startup Glowforge
Dan Shapiro and his team of serial entrepreneurs are making something to help other people make things. It might be a Star Trek-like replicator—or at least a very early prototype of one. They have a milling machine as big as an elephant in their facility in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, more than $1 million in angel funding, and job openings.
Shapiro lifted the lid—sort of—on Glowforge this week, sketching the outlines of the project on his blog and in an interview with Xconomy.
“I feel rather ridiculous not talking about what I’m doing because stealth mode is so often a cliché and the wrong thing for a company to do,” he says, adding, “Frankly, I’ve never been so excited in my entire life.”
Glowforge is in the midst of filing patents for its core intellectual property, hiring, and honing its plans. “It would be a distraction to have everyone poking and prodding on our plans before they’re fully polished,” Shapiro says by way of explanation.
Here’s how he describes what Glowforge is working on, in broad strokes, in a Monday blog post: “We’re making a real, tangible thing—a piece of hardware—powered by a giant stack of software. It’s incredibly complicated, with everything from electronics to injection molded plastics to firmware to a web app. It’s not an incremental thing; it’s approaching science fiction. It’s actually a product that makes it simple for people to create real, beautiful products. Really simple. Like a very, very early prototype of a Star Trek replicator—but not for food.”
I tried to pry a bit more out of him. Asked whether the company is targeting businesses or consumers, Shapiro says the hope is “that over the course of the next few years, just about anybody would be excited to get one of what we’re working on.” Asked whether the product will be bigger than a bread box, Shapiro says “it’s definitely something where an individual person could own one.”
Glowforge is working from a 7,500-square-foot facility, where Boeing airplanes used to be built, with beams made from trees “planted about the time the Constitution was signed,” Shapiro says. Today, it’s situated between a nightclub and a brewery in SoDo, a neighborhood bordered by the port and home to an interesting mix of older manufacturing companies, startups, Starbucks headquarters, and entertainment and sports venues.
Inside, Glowforge is assembling fun tools including a full electronics lab and a seven-ton, 10-foot-tall, three-axis vertical mill—“almost exactly the same dimensions of an African bull elephant,” Shapiro says.
The Glowforge founding team includes CEO Shapiro, whose credits include Robot Turtles, a board game—the most successful ever funded on Kickstarter—that helps young kids learn programming fundamentals, Sparkbuy (acquired by Google), and Ontela (merged with Photobucket); product head Tony Wright, founder of companies including RescueTime; and CTO Mark Gosselin, whose company Cequint was acquired for $112.5 million.
In addition, Shapiro recruited BoingBoing.net lead developer Dean Putney to Seattle as lead software engineer. Kira Franz, former operations head at Chef, is in the same role at Glowforge. Tim Ellis, an electrical engineer turned real estate blogger and data scientist, is back to engineering hardware. The most recent hire is Lauren Banka, a published poet who worked most recently at Metrix Create: Space, a Capitol Hill business and maker-movement hub that offers prototyping and fabrication services to the public.
Banka’s experience will come in handy as Glowforge contemplates making some of its shop tools available to a broader audience, in keeping with the company’s goal of making it easier for people to create things.
“Software companies have come to the realization that by embracing open source, they can share knowledge, work with the community, and get something back,” Shapiro says. “We’ve been trying to think what some of the parallels are in the hardware world.”
Backers include game designer and entrepreneur Jordan Weisman; Renee DiResta, formerly of O’Reilly Alphatech Ventures; prolific Seattle angel investor Geoff Entress; Andy Liu of BuddyTV; Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint; and Mike McSherry of Swype.
Shapiro’s motivation for divulging more about Glowforge now is pretty straightforward: “We’ve got a whole lot of space and a lot of work to do,” he says. “We need some great engineers to fill it up.”