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Joseph DeSimone Out as Carbon CEO Replaced by Ellen Kullman

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Sometimes executives wish to spend less time with their families, today Joseph DeSimone is stepping down as Carbon CEO. Joseph will instead become Executive Chairman of the Board. His replacement is Ellen Kullman who will also remain on Carbon’s board (as well as a number of other boards that she sits on, such as Goldman’s). Ellen seems like a perfect candidate given her background as a mechanical engineer and in senior positions at GE, GM and DuPont. Indeed her experience at automotive firms, polymer firms, and her extensive network are very valuable to the firm. It is a bit unclear at this point however if she is a “placeholder” until a full-time CEO has been found or if she will change from serving on boards and councils to go back to the day to day running of a company. Either way, she is a safe pair of hands to run the firm and to lead this transition at this time.

And it will be quite the transition. Joseph founded Carbon six years ago. His TEDX speech made a huge impact and immediately the company was launched into the stratosphere. Expectations were high and the company has shown itself to be a master at marketing. Creating inevitability is something Carbon has done very well. With its CLIP (DLS) technology, it has a potentially faster method to print SLA parts and the firm parlayed this into a self-reinforcing hype around making manufacturing possible. Hundreds of millions were raised and the firm expanded quickly.

I’ve gone on the record extensively as being skeptical of Carbon’s claims and the suitability of its technology as a manufacturing technology. At this point, I don’t believe that the world wants a thermoset plastic that can not be recycled as a huge volume manufacturing technology. I do not think consumers will stand for it. I also do not believe that Carbon can work well with parts that have a significant cross-sectional area or indeed are very large. Whereas Carbon’s materials portfolio is very impressive with stronger, specific and flexible materials I’ll always be skeptical of the real-life performance of these parts as end-use parts. The firm’s leasing model is innovative but the TCO is simply too high as in the cost per part. If the firm had always maintained that it was an effective technology for some geometries of small SLA parts for dental and molds then I’d be fine with it. The idea however that CLIP/DLS specifically would unlock a manufacturing revolution in end-use parts always filled me more with dread than optimism. 3D printing is manufacturing technology. There is a concrete floor somewhere waiting for machines to make things. You can interest people through promises and overinflated expectation but in the final analysis an entrepreneur or company will have to spend money on something that works. In the face of reshaping our world, we as an industry should be humble, truthful and clear.

It is the hyperbole and self-congratulatory nature of the firm that has always bothered me. Don’t get me wrong Joseph’s scientific work and Carbon’s process is innovative. Carbon’s ability to market itself and push the conversation about 3D printing forward is awesome. I’m very impressed with the firm’s accomplishments and Joe’s role in taking a technology (of several) and raising an incredible $682 million. Carbon is a real achievement but then the firm spoils it all. The press release states, “I am privileged to have spent the last few years on the Carbon board working alongside Joe, one of the greatest entrepreneurs and scientists of our time.” Yes, he’s super impressive but he didn’t discover DNA people. Come on.

“For the last six years, I have led Carbon as Chief Executive Officer and am enormously proud of what we’ve accomplished during my tenure/ I know what we will accomplish under Ellen will be even more extraordinary. Ellen is the right person to lead Carbon today. She has broad experience across multiple businesses, cycles, and geographies. Her vision, outstanding leadership traits, and distinguished track record will continue to drive Carbon’s growth into the future. In assuming the Executive Chairman role, I will be able to focus on evangelizing the platform and driving adoption more widely.”

So what has happened here? There are broadly, three scenarios.

  1. As espoused by a formerly quite impressive magazine: this could be a logical planned step for the next phase of the company’s development. That drops during Fromnext. Without an event or extensive canapes and drinks. Without being pre-whispered to the press in advance? Without a nice round of OMG it was amazing interviews before. I’m skeptical about this because Joseph wasn’t some WeWork cray-cray-peneur. He seemed to be on top of the firm’s growth and development and had credibility in our industry. He was optimistic sure, but not nuts.
  2. Performance at Carbon could have been disappointing investors. If I look around then it wouldn’t surprise me if the number of initially shipped units would not have all of a sudden done a hockeystick and increased as projected. A manufacturing technology is perhaps not as predictable in its growth as an app. It is difficult to find applications customers and firm and industrialize 3D printing processes. With limited sizes and geometries, the number of possible applications Carbon can tackle remains limited. I know of only one customer using Carbon as some scale to manufacture end-use parts, but that probably just my limited knowledge of the industry talking.
  3. I really do hate to have to bring up the Speedfactories again but the closure of the Speedfactories (along with a post-closure as hoc announcement that they will be continuing with Carbon) plus the impending departure from Adidas of Board Member Eric Liedke may have dented investor’s confidence in turning hope & friends into dollars in manufacturing.
  4. As someone stated to me only yesterday fear surrounding returns after WeWork has made boards and investors much more critical of deployed capital than in the past, and perhaps this review has also occurred at Carbon.

All in all Joseph DeSimone has really propelled our industry forward. As a scientist and business leader he has shown us as CEO what one could do by asking “What if 3D Printing Were a 100 Times Faster.” Still a valid question.

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