Zach Kaplan is the founder and CEO of the company Inventables, a 3D carving company offering a powerful machine, intuitive software, and unique materials that make carving easy and inspiring. Kaplan is also a member of the board of directors for mHUB, Chicago’s first innovation center focused on physical product development and manufacturing, and a founding partner at Corazon Capital. He has a vested interest in the entrepreneurial economy that can be afforded through 3D printing and product manufacturing as his company helps to enable entrepreneurs within this field.
Give us a bit of info on your background?
I got started in digital manufacturing at Glenbrook North High School. That experience inspired me to get a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
What was your first experience as a maker?
My first experience as a maker was probably playing with construction toys as a child. We had LEGOs, Construx, and cardboard brick blocks. The first electrical project I remember was a soldering an autonomous robot together in 6th grade.
Chicago has deep roots in manufacturing, what effect has that had?
Manufacturers in Illinois account for 12.6 percent of the total output in the state, employing 9.5 percent of the workforce. Total output from manufacturing was $103.75 billion in 2017. In addition, there were 572,700 manufacturing employees in Illinois. I think that has helped us build an ecosystem to advance digital manufacturing.
Chicago has been the center of gravity for digital manufacturing. We’ve shown a lot of leadership when it comes to the growth in the movement. The Museum of Science and Industry was one of the first to have a fab lab. Chicago was the first big city to build a large scale makerspace in a library. Pumping Station One started in 2009 before it was fashionable to build a makerspace or hackerspace. Today mHub and DMDII are buzzing with activity and have brought together the traditional manufacturing industries, the startup community, with digital manufacturing technology. It’s a great place for Inventables to be.
As a member of the board of Directors at mHUB, what excites you about developments within Chicago and the additive manufacturing sector as a whole?
mHUB was a glimmer of an idea 5 years ago when we first started talking about it at the GE Garage during Chicago Ideas Week. Today it’s a 63,000 square-foot facility that contains 10 fabrication labs, including electronics, plastic fabrication, metals, textiles and rapid prototyping, as well as a microfactory for small production runs. What excites me is it’s buzzing with activity.
You have a manufacturing background but also have involvement within the VC world as a founding partner at Corazon Capital. Could you give some insight on what it means to go from an entrepreneur to an investor?
Going from an entrepreneur to an investor happens pretty organically. As you go on your entrepreneurial journey other entrepreneurs start asking you questions or for feedback on fundraising. I gradually started getting more and more deals sent to me and eventually started investing. Corazon has a team of people and I’ve become a venture partner. My role is to help identify investments, evaluate them, and help other founders in our portfolio by making introductions or sharing my experiences. In terms of my own investment thesis I like to invest in people working on problems in big markets where the product is just starting to be defined. At Corazon we invest in seed and early stage deals so the product is still evolving.
What advice do you have to people who are working with startups in the additive manufacturing space?
Fail often to succeed sooner.
What advantages does Chicago have in terms of the global maker scene?
Chicago is well connected in the global maker scene because of O’Hare airport. Almost every city is a direct flight away. We sometimes take that for granted living here. We have McCormick Place which brings the IMTS (International Manufacturing Technology Show).
What are some trends to watch out for within the maker world?
Low cost distributed digital manufacturing with CNC machines is going to dramatically increase over the next 5 years.
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