AMS Spring 2023

CIA’s In-Q-Tel Invests in 3D Printing Software Startup nTopology

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3D printing software startup nTopology has announced that it has received an investment from In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Though the amount invested in the firm has not been disclosed, the company has received at least $31 million total from various investors since it was founded in 2015.

nTopology has developed a unique software platform for advanced manufacturing dubbed nTop that uses a combination of generative design and workflow management and production prep to overcome the issues found with traditional CAD software. Venture capital firm Canaan has facilitated funding rounds that resulted in the aforementioned $31 million while nTopology has picked up a number of powerful customers in the process, including Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Department of Defense, Disney and Daimler. Former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass even joined the startup’s board of directors.

A screenshot of the nTop tool. Image courtesy of nTopology.

Given the military clients just listed, it’s no surprise then that In-Q-Tel, founded in 1999 to give the CIA research and development leverage in Silicon Valley, would be interested in nTopology, as well. As is the case with just about all In-Q-Tel investments, the exact nature of the investment is not disclosed to the public, including the amount, what the intelligence community’s (IC’s) interest in the technology is, or what stake the CIA now has in the startup.

From our previous coverage of In-Q-Tel, we learned that average investment ranges between $500,000 to $3 million, which gives the intelligence funding equity in the company and an advisory role on the startup’s board. In turn, In-Q-Tel can potentially guide product development and learn of any news before the public does.

nTopology’s announcement does reveal that the startup will be working with In-Q-Tel’s “partners” and “affiliates” but does not indicate whether that means other firms invested in by the VC arm of the IC or just general associates of the IC at large.

Keyhole, Inc. technology before it was acquired by Google. Image courtesy of Officer.com.

Within the In-Q-Tel portfolio, two of the most notable startups that IC VC firm funded were KeyHole Inc, which went on to serve the basis for Google Earth, as well as Palantir, the Peter Thiel-founded company that links intelligence databases and was under fire for its role in deportations Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency. In two cases, startups funded by In-Q-Tel were involved in questionable activities, including NSA domestic surveillance and a possible pump-and-dump scheme.

Outside of its investment portfolio, these partners can be even more diverse. Those who have followed the exploits of the U.S. IC know that this can range from your standard defense contractor to Nicaraguan Contras, the Afghan mujahideen and one of U.S. history’s most notorious banks.

This isn’t the first 3D printing-related startup that In-Q-Tel has invested in, which now includes Voxel8, Arevo, Fuel3D and Markforged. What it wants with any of those firms is anyone’s guess, but we hypothesize on the possibilities in the links embedded in the previous sentence.

nTopology’s technology is a part of an important trend in 3D printing that makes it possible to optimize designs and workflows for a technology for which traditional CAD software was not designed. Currently, we are seeing a number of software developments occur in this space that seek to make advanced manufacturing with these tools possible.

A rocket nozzle created with nTopology’s software. Image courtesy of nTopology.

Autodesk may have begun this process through the acquisition of Netfabb (under Carl Bass’s leadership), giving the CAD giant a tool for design optimization for 3D printing. After first being integrated into Siemens’ CAD software, Frustrum’s generative design kernel for additive manufacturing (AM) soon caught the eye of another publicly traded CAD leader, PTC, who decided to acquire the startup. Meanwhile, ANSYS has purchased 3DSIM, which falls less on the side of generative design and more on the side of quality control and design simulation. However, ANSYS also partners with nTopology, which signifies the simulation software giant’s overall interest in the AM space.

As CAD software becomes better adept at designing for 3D printing, thanks to tools like those from nTopology, we will likely see the use of AM for production really hit its stride. For the industrialized world overall, that means more geometrically complex items that have been optimized for performance. For the IC, we can only try to fathom what that means.

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