OCA Ventures, Kaplan make big bet on 3-D printing

OCA Ventures, Kaplan make big bet on 3-D printing

A group of Chicago investors and entrepreneurs is aiming to help U.S. manufacturers make the leap into 3-D printing.

OCA Ventures and several angel investors are investing $2.8 million in Impossible Objects, a 3-D printing startup headed by former Navteq CEO Larry Kaplan. The Northbrook-based company aims to build new machines for 3-D manufacturing, using technology developed by Robert Swartz, a serial entrepreneur.

“Current technologies are 20 or so years old,” said Kaplan, 51, who left Chicago digital mapping company Navteq after it was sold to Nokia of Finland. “They are great for prototyping but too slow compared to volume manufacturing.

"The parts coming out of 3-D weren't as good as traditional manufacturing. To make a dent in manufacturing, you have to overcome the challenges of 3-D printing: speed of production, using a wider range of materials and coming up with superior mechanical properties.”

The five-employee company already is making parts such as a component for a small aircraft and a fan blade out of materials such as carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass for a few customers. But the long-term goal is to sell equipment and supplies to manufacturers to do their own production. The company will focus on industries such as aerospace, automotive and medicine, which already are working with composites.

Swartz, who previously ran a family business that made point-of-sale displays and later founded a company that licensed software to Intel, is an adviser to MIT's Media Lab. He began working on 3-D printing technology five years ago.

“I was introduced to Bob a couple years ago,” said Kaplan, who also has been an adviser to OCA and worked with Eudora, an asset-management company based in New York. “I became fascinated with it and reached a point where we became interested in working together. It was the most interesting thing I'd seen since I joined Navteq.”

The 3-D venture is, however, a long shot. Developing new technology, particularly manufacturing equipment, is an expensive proposition. But OCA, which recently began raising a $100 million fund, has made big bets before. It was an early backer of Cleversafe of Chicago, which developed new data-storage technology.

Other Chicago-area investors in Impossible Objects include Armando Pauker, a partner at Apex Venture Partners in Chicago, and Len Wanger, managing partner at Deer Valley Ventures of Park City, Utah.

One potential asset for Impossible Objects could be UI Labs, which is developing next-generation manufacturing technology at its Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute on Chicago's Goose Island.

Although 3-D printing is best known for use by hobbyists who are part of the "maker" movement and as a prototyping tool, several other companies, such as Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., and 3D Systems of Rock Hill, S.C., already are making 3-D production equipment.

“The issue in 3-D is repeatability and reliability,” said Federico Sciammarella, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “The materials available are limited. What needs to happen is you need to start making materials developed for that (3-D) process. Cost of systems will come down. There's also a cultural shift required. That's going to be the challenge: You have to take the design engineers and teach them this is another tool in their toolbox.”



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