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What makes a successful idea, or why 3D printing startups need to partner up with investors

INTAMSYS industrial 3d printing

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A lot of successful projects begin as small startups. Without a doubt, the inventors play a major role in this process, but the investor’s contribution is often disregarded, and it’s not fair. The traditional investment model is easy to understand — the investor provides funding, the team makes the project, the investment either pays off or doesn’t. However, there are other formats of partnership, and they’re way more interesting.

We’re talking about a full-fledged business partner ready to invest something besides money in a startup. Someone who provides expertise, production facilities and other support, all the way to marketing and product launch. For the purposes of this article, we’ll occasionally refer to them as accelerators or ecosystems.

The conditions may be very different, and we’re not going to speak for everyone. What we will do is share our own experience at 3D.ru. Besides, there’s no better moment for it: we’re hosting a 3D printing event anyone can participate in.

As an accelerator and a company that has been operating on the 3D printing market for almost 10 years, we hear certain questions all the time. Here they are:

  1. Why do 3D printing startups need investors and accelerators? A good idea will take off anyway.
  2. Will the idea be enough, or do I need a working prototype?
  3. How can I be sure you won’t steal my idea after the first meeting?
  4. What kind of project would attract investors the most — printers, software, materials?
  5. What happens at the first meeting?
  6. Who will own the rights to my IP?
  7. The contract is signed. What’s next?
  8. What does the accelerator do for a startup specifically?
  9. Can a startup lose money?
  10. How do you evaluate and analyze a startup?
  11. What product metrics will be measured?
  12. Which metrics do investors look at?
  13. What if everything worked out and the project became successful?
  14. How will we divide the profit?

Now, it’s time to take a closer look at each question, discuss what to expect from such a partnership, and debunk some myths. And, if you find yourself interested in exploring this topic even further, there might be a few tips and tricks considering our 3D printing event.

Why do 3D printing startups need investors and accelerators? A good idea will take off anyway.

Unfortunately, in most cases, not only will it fail to take off, it will never reach the market. The idea might be as thorough as they come and look promising on paper, but it doesn’t mean anything until you shape it into something real.

You need prototypes, testing, market demand assessment and much more. More often than not, young startups lack the budgets and the experience required to provide these things. There are times when a small team develops and manufactures a new technology completely in-house, but these cases are few and far between. At the end of the day, even those small teams can always start working with accelerators and investors to improve their performance.

Startup accelerators are like video game publishers — sometimes, they offer things you shouldn’t refuse. An experienced partner invests, shares expertise, provides production capacity, analyzes metrics, gives feedback, and even provides extra specialists for your team. They support startups every step of the way, from outlining the idea to designing the packaging and launching on the global market.

Even if the technology didn’t take off, you can always keep it for yourself and end the partnership amicably.

A startup can operate independently, but it makes things difficult. For example, to order parts for a prototype, you need supplier contacts, and in order to produce something by yourself, you need equipment (CNC machines, carvers, metal bending machines, and so on).

If a startup makes printing materials, it needs a source of chemicals. Finding a couple of cans is easy, but it gets tricky when you need a hundred. Even if you have the exact list of raw materials, you probably won’t be able to buy them. Suppliers aren’t that easy to find, and not everyone is willing to disclose what’s in their products. Also, the materials may be incompatible with each other or simply of different quality, so it can take years just to find the perfect raw material.

In total, it can cost up to a million dollars, and the accelerator can offer it for free.

Is there a chance to get a bad investor?

Unfortunately, no industry is perfect. But even if you had a negative experience before, it doesn’t mean you need to put all investors in the same category.

Yes, some people might promise you the moon and the stars, when in fact they’ll just take over the project management and control every step of development. There are also investors that aren’t really committed to the 3D printing industry. In this case, the startups will most likely be left to their own devices, but the investor won’t be able to help when they need advice, internal expertise, specialists and production base. Ideally, you need a healthy mix of the two.

You can start the hunt for a perfect business partner by doing basic internet research. If the investor is well-known, search results will tell you everything you need to know. In other cases, simply talking to the investor will be enough. Ask about their experience in the industry, the startups they successfully launched, and discuss the conditions they can offer you. Always keep in mind that the investor is as interested in a mutually beneficial partnership as you are. You have nothing to lose — no one is going to demand anything the first time you meet.

If an accelerator doesn’t have successful cases and experience to show, or if they’re still new on the market, you should think long and hard about doing business with them. It’s absolutely essential for you to make sure every little detail of the partnership is in the contract. The more specific it is, the less disputes you’ll have in the future.

Will the idea be enough, or do I need a working prototype before I approach the investor?

Once again, it’s worth noting that abstract ideas are of little value. There’s a hundred new ideas every minute, but only a selected few become real products. It’s not enough to be talented at seeing the product’s potential if you can’t also guide it to the finish line.

A clever, well thought-out idea is enough to work with, but you need to have at least that. You have to understand what it can offer to the industry, how to bring it to life, whether it’ll be popular and whether it’ll be useful to anyone at all.

Even if you don’t have proper experience or market data, you need a structured document that explains your vision of the project — every accelerator wants to see the technical foundation for the project’s feasibility first and foremost.

How can I be sure you won’t steal my idea after the first meeting?

You can’t, but it doesn’t benefit anyone. If a partner has budgets, resources and capacities, there’s still no guarantee the idea will be implemented perfectly. Besides, there are plenty of ideas going around, but no one can execute them better than their original creators. The rest just won’t be motivated enough, and you need to have that fire in your eyes to get it done.

The investor is interested in having a productive long-term partnership with the team and expanding the portfolio. Stealing is a massive blow to the reputation. Is a single idea that might go nowhere worth the risk? Definitely not.

The legal stuff might seem intimidating to most startups at first, but no one is going to say no to signing an NDA even before the first presentation. The accelerator is interested in both sides feeling comfortable.

What kind of project would attract investors the most — printers, software, materials?

Absolutely everything related to additive manufacturing. Despite the fact that the market has been developing for almost 40 years, there’s still plenty of room. There are so many new things you can apply to 3D printing: the internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, neural networks, machine learning, just to name a few.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. It allows you to collect data on defective products, subtle aspects of production, and so on — the possibilities are virtually endless, yet no one really uses it in the industry. Printers never stop being a hot commodity. At 3D.ru, we always strive to have the fullest collection of equipment that’s tailored exclusively to our production needs.

What happens at the first meeting?

The main point of first meetings is just getting to know each other without any paperwork. The startup presents itself and the project, and the potential partner shares some information about themselves and what they can offer in addition to funding. Really important point: you need to talk and discuss the details before entering any sort of partnership.

Every startup gets a different deal. A lot depends on how far along in the project you are when you come to the investor and your specific requests. Some have only an idea on their hands, some need to make a prototype, and others have their own production or technology and want to enter the global market. Whatever it may be, exploring every possibility is in the accelerator’s best interest.

One time, we were approached by a small team that was already developing a prototype of an FDM printer. We loosely discussed all stages of further partnership: testing, audit, implementation assistance, and so on. But first, we needed to see the product and make sure it worked at all. The development team already had a prototype in the works, so they promised to come back in a month when it’s finished. We never saw them again.

Maybe it didn’t go well with the prototype, or the team wasn’t on the same page about the project. This often happens when small companies are trying to launch a new product without any external help. They argue about how to do it right and who to involve. As a result, they disintegrate, but even if their prototype didn’t dazzle us by how glorious it is, we’d definitely help if we saw it had room for improvement.

This stage filters out a lot of startups established on abstract ideas by people who aren’t sure what they want. We sign contracts with the rest.

Who will own the rights to my IP?

After the first meeting is done and everyone is satisfied with the idea, partnership format, and all the other details, it’s time to draw up a contract. It regulates all intellectual property (IP) ownership. This is a purely individual process that depends on many factors: what kind of project it is, what development stage it’s at, how much investment is required, and so on. Generally speaking, there are two ways it might go:

  1. Full acquisition of the startup for a fixed value.
  2. Acquisition of a share in the startup by investment.

If people come with their own patents, naturally, no one will take them away. A lot of teams that approach us are just groups of enthusiasts without a legal entity or any other paperwork required to run a legitimate business. In this case, we sign the contract when they showcase the real product, or when we discuss the technological part.

If the project falls through for some reason, or, on the contrary, it does so well that the startup wants to continue independently, we can go our separate ways. We’re talking about a win-win situation everyone benefits from, even if they decide to end the partnership. Every case is special, but one point is universal — all conditions will be agreed upon and documented when you approach the stage of prototype implementation or serial production.

The contract is signed. What’s next?

The contract has been signed and the funding has been received, so the startup can start working. If you have your own office or production facility, it’s great. If the team wants to continue working out of the “garage”, the investor won’t have a problem with that as well.

If we’re talking about 3D.ru in particular, we’re happy to let the startups use our production facility. This usually happens when there’s a finished prototype, or if the project in question is something really large-scale, like an industrial printer. We allocate separate areas for assembly and placement. The startups get access to our equipment right away — if you need something printed or tested, you can contact the curator from our team.

You can also spend the funding on opening your own production facility and expanding the team, like the guys from HARZ Labs did. They started out in a small 40 square meter lab, now they have a 450 square meter workshop.

Whatever path a startup chooses, it always works on the product independently while we provide support, feedback, expertise and the required advice. At later stages, our services include marketing, arranging trips to conferences, meetings with clients, and so on. This happens until the moment the product goes into production. After that, everything is in the startup’s hands.

What does the accelerator do for a startup specifically?

Let’s follow this list:

  • production capacity;
  • expertise;
  • funding;
  • feedback;
  • marketing;
  • customer relations.
  1. Production capacity. Even if you came in with a well-developed idea, but you don’t have a working prototype, the investor will help you make it. If you need something big like an industrial 3D scanner, we estimate the costs in terms of how many resources, time and people it will take. Then we decide if we should build a prototype or if the idea is outdated. Preliminary development assessment is possible even at the idea stage and it helps to reduce the cost of an engineering error, since it’s much more expensive to rework a prototype.

On the technical side, the partner’s assistance goes way beyond building the prototype and extends to testing, improvement, and making sure the technology does well in action. Most importantly, the startup will have a platform that lets them make any parts from metal, plastic, or whatever else. All you need is a blueprint, everything else we can do quickly and free of charge.

This is the reason we have our own production facility, which operates around the clock and is able to withstand the most severe conditions in terms of workload. In our workshops, we implement seven different printing methods on more than 10 types of 3D printers, including devices from 3D Systems, Massivit, Zortrax and other major manufacturers.

To add to that, we do modeling, scanning, casting and milling. All this is available to all our startups from the get-go.

When it comes to testing in production, it requires some additional approvals. After all, we have an operating enterprise and produce items in addition to investing. You can’t stop fulfilling orders every time something needs testing, although this happens in exceptional cases.

Otherwise, we can even design, paint and give the product that polished marketable look. We’re also able to implement production management systems and store engineering documentation among other things.

  1. Expertise. The accelerator is always ready to share experience and help. If coding is the team’s strong side, but they can’t say the same when it comes to hardware or business, they can also request more staff. The right specialist is allocated or hired to oversee the project and provide the necessary resources. When this happens, the team stays independent, since no one from the investor’s side is trying to interfere in their work processes. The curator only maintains communication with the entire company ecosystem, for instance, the production and printing departments.

Very often, teams are doing well when it comes to development, but they don’t know how to approach promotion or workflow management. An accelerator can advise on a project, help develop a roadmap, and more. A startup needs years to develop what we have available at a moment’s notice, and these years won’t come cheap.

If the team is located in another city or country, on-site work and consulting can also be arranged.

  1. Funding. It’s not good when a startup sets the budgets lower than they need to be. And it’s also not good when people spend less than they asked for. Both situations make the flaws in planning glaringly obvious.

Of course, the investment budget doesn’t come in a lump sum. You have to draw up and agree upon an individual payment plan — the payments can be broken down by months or stages.

Production capacities and ecosystem resources are another thing. Access to them is either included in the investment amount right away, or paid for upon use based on cost price. In this case, you don’t need to pay for the equipment, only for the materials. Let’s say developing a prototype requires $1,500, 500 of which will be spent on photopolymer printing at the market price. We can provide it at the cost price, for $100.

  1. Feedback. The investor should never act as the team’s manager. There’s no need in pointing out the shortcomings — it’s the startup’s project, and they want to see it succeed more than anyone else.

It’s more of a consulting job at this point, and the team will get feedback at each stage of development. If the team is done with development planning and ready to assemble a prototype, we’ll guide them through the obstacles they may encounter. When the project goes into production, we comment on it from the commercial use standpoint.

When the finished product makes its way to dealers or enterprises and passes their first tests, the team has to start gathering feedback on their own. Essentially, they’ve already released the product, so they’re obliged to provide customer support.

A startup with an abstract idea won’t leave without some feedback as well. Even if we won’t be working together, we’ll explain why the product needs to be polished or even abandoned. If the team is interested and the idea has potential, they can come back later with an improved version. Who knows, we might become partners after all.

  1. Marketing. It’s impossible to predict marketing budgets down to a cent when you sign the contract, so you have to make new agreements as you go. There are several options.

If there’s a finished prototype, you can tease it on the industry blogs, the website, social media, or even bring it to an expo in some cases. This way, you can get the potential customers’ attention or get feedback and further improve the product.

If the project is in pre-production and already been tested (for materials or printers) or is in beta (for software), it’s time to write articles, press releases and announcements. Trips to 3D printing conferences and expos — such as Formnext in Frankfurt — are also happening at this stage.

If the product is produced in series and has been tested at all stages in real working conditions, it’s safe to launch large-scale ad campaigns, get booths at events like Messe Frankfurt, and buy ad space.

  1. Customer relations. 3D printing accelerators are always in touch with customers and end users. This is something that’s often overlooked. Not only are they potential customers for a new piece of tech, but they can also provide constructive feedback and help assess the product’s potential.

You can contact an enterprise directly and if they’re interested, you’ll get to work with a real customer and subsequently implement your tech in addition to making an investment in the future.

Can a startup lose money?

It can’t.

Worst case scenario, the team will lose the time that it spent on developing their project.

The investor covers all financial risks. Even if the money’s gone and will definitely not come back, the startup won’t face any repercussions. There won’t be any fines and no one will demand a refund, that’s for sure.

How do you evaluate and analyze a startup?

We usually evaluate two things.

  1. The startup itself. We look at the team, each member’s background compared to where they are now, and so on. Sometimes an idea is so ambitious that a lack of expertise becomes obvious. This is not a bad thing, it just needs to be taken into account in further discussions.
  2. The idea. First of all, it’s important to understand its potential, relevance and feasibility. When we do the overall assessment, we primarily rely on the opinion of our niche experts and scientists. If necessary, we can use outside help — when you’ve been in the industry for a long time, you accumulate a lot of contacts among manufacturers and employees of interested companies.

A few months ago, we were approached by a patent holder with what seemed to be a thousand patents, including one for a 3D printer print head. He asked us to fund the prototype, development, and market introduction. We began to research this project to see if there was something innovative about this project and where it could be applied. It turned out that in real life it was almost impossible to attach this project to anything.

It was a printer head that allowed you to mix colors internally and print in the selected color. Sounds great on paper, in theory it could’ve been implemented in the souvenir industry, but you would’ve had to develop your own consumables. From this point of view, the production of print heads wasn’t in demand on the market and didn’t scale. These are the limitations that startups may face, because ideas have to be applicable.

HARZ Labs is a successful example. The guys came to us with a proposal to make a polymer for printers with high material consumption, which was very expensive. They promised to make it comparable in quality, but several times cheaper. Of course, we agreed and after a couple of weeks we got the finished polymer.

Which metrics do investors look at?

Usually, not a lot of people request a binder full of numbers on all the latest developments in the print industry. It’s enough to research the area of ​​application for the technology you’re aiming at and collect information about the current situation, competitors and prices. Using that data, you can evaluate the product.

Globally, there are three metrics that we’re looking at:

  • How unique the idea is and what new things it can offer to the printing industry.
  • What are the prospects for the project’s further development, is there room for it to grow and improve.
  • Competitive ability. You can use a different technology to get the same printing results, but several times cheaper. This also includes technical features: speed, print area, dimensions and so on.

These metrics are more than enough. And if you need deep analysis, the accelerator can help with that, too.

What if the startup didn’t take off?

First, we’ll try everything we can to bring it back to life. There’s a clear set of reasons why a project may fail: the technology can be broken, expensive or slow, among other things. You can always try to build the same printer but cheaper just by using different parts or layout.

Almost all devices on the market are having the same experience. Take electric cars, for example. Initially, they were insanely expensive, everything was tailored to the client’s needs, and there was no mass production. Now the picture is completely different. 3D printing industry is no different. If the project can be improved and the team understands exactly how to do it, the work will continue on and on. Who knows, maybe this startup will evolve into something new altogether.

If the project is getting shut down, it’s not the end of the world either. Even if you possess all the required resources and skills, not every idea gets to be a hit, and everyone should understand these risks.

A bad experience is an experience nonetheless. The expertise you acquired will be useful in the future. If the startup team did well, and they have a new idea  they’re ready to work on, there’s no reason for the partnership to end.

What if everything worked out and the project became successful? How will we divide the profit?

It’s pretty simple. Shares are agreed upon even before the partnership officially starts, and the profit will eventually be distributed in accordance with the contract.

The successful launch of the project is a happy ending to the story, but it’s not the reason to end the partnership and split ways — the team can always create and develop something new if they want to.

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