The Next Web (TNW) Latin America, Day 2

* Original Post in August 2013 *

The second day at the conference was noticeably slower than the first.  On top of some significant internet problems (and by that I mean there was no wifi for most of the day), there were less people stopping by the booth, and just less people in general.  Regardless, we spent most of the day printing The Next Web logo (thanks Lorena!), which was given as a prize to Senseta for winning the startup rally.

With more free time than the day before, I had more opportunities to hop next door and watch the presenters.  Kei Shimada kicked things off with a great quote by Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  I took this advice to heart, explaining our 3D printer to bewildered onlookers with the simple one-word explanation: “Magic.”

The investor panel on stage – among them Startup Chile’s very own Horacio Melo – offered some sound advice regarding startups in Latin America.  They urged the crowd to look to solve Latin America’s problems, rather than rushing to build the first thing they see on Tech Crunch and thinking it will work in the LatAm market.  These solutions they said, will not be sexy.  Think: B2B, software as a service companies.  Horacio added: “Please no more social networks.”

My favorite speaker of the day was Paulo Veras from 99 Taxis.  His talk was about how to scale your startup to a full-fledged business, but he also spent a lot of time talking about how to be a successfulstartup.  A lot of his advice was very pertinent to re:3D’s current stage.  Veras stressed the importance of hiring exceptional people.  Startups need to take the time to seek out A players, and fix mistakes quickly when they arise.  One of his other main points was about laser focus – a piece of advice re:3D hears a lot.  Unfocused startups fail, he said.  Have one product and nail it – then, when you become really good at that one thing, you can diversify.

On top of listening to some very interesting talks, we got to speak with more new people at the booth.  Some brief points from the day:

1. We can’t escape it – no matter what country we’re in we get the inevitable weapons question.  Brazil is no exception – there was a notable fascination among the Brazilians with printing guns.  One guy even went so far as to say, “Well, when you can print a gun, I’ll buy [a Gigabot].”

2. There was some strong interest from several attendees (one disappointed Brazilian who wanted to walk out of the conference with our STGO MakerSpace-destined Gigabot), but mostly just a lot of entrepreneurs curious to see a 3D printer, but with no practical use for one.

3. I tried Google Glass.  I’ve seen a handful of people wearing them in the States, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hound them with questions like, “What do they do?”, “Do you use them everyday?”, and “Do you feel like a total idiot when you wear them?”. Today, I finally got the chance to ask all these questions and more.  And – bonus! – I got to try them on and give them a spin myself.

Tomorrow is our final day in São Paulo – Matthew heads to Santiago to play musical chairs with some Gigabots while I head back to San Francisco.  I get most of the day tomorrow to explore the city and I plan on making a 2nd, hopefully more successful than my first experience, stop at a Churrascaria.

Morgan

The Next Web (TNW) Latin America, Day 1

* Original Post from August 2013 *

As expected, it was an action-packed first day at The Next Web conference in São Paulo, Brazil.  After accidentally eating until the point of pain the night before at traditional Brazilian Churrasco restaurant (I clearly did not understand the process at this kind of establishment), it was an early start this morning to get set up. Matthew zipped through Gigabot assembly, with only minimal visible envy of the surrounding software companies whose setup procedure was opening their laptops.

The first talk of the day was Luis von Ahn, who humorously explained his past accomplishments: “How many have you have ever filled out [a captcha form]?  How many of you found it extremely annoying?  Yeah, I invented that.”  The human being-verification inventor went on to describe his latest venture, a language-learning startup called duolingo (www.duolingo.com).  The idea behind it is that users learn a new language while simultaneously translating the web.  The service is free – duolingo makes their money by selling the translations that their users create for them.  The same thinking went into both captchas and duolingo: recycle the energy that people are already expending on the web.  This mentality can be traced back to von Ahn’s childhood idea of creating a gym where the people exercising on machines create electricity which is then sold back to electric companies.  Take an action that people are already doing, and figure out how to make use of it.

On top of this, duolingo is simultaneously essentially doing one giant A/B test of language-learning.  von Ahn asks, “Do we teach students adjectives first, or plurals first?”  Now they have a definitive answer to that question, after splitting up users between the two different options and tracking their progress.  And with research showing that after using the service for 34 hours, users have the same amount of knowledge as the equivalent of a semester of a university course, it seems they have the right idea.

Other takeaways from the day:

Many Brazilians expressed interest in 3D printing, and they see the value in having such a tool for prototyping.  However, they warn of potential problems getting Gigabot through Brazilian customs.  Not only are the taxes high, they say some imports just never make it through.  More investigation is needed into this, but it seems like the best option for interested Brazilians might be to come to the states and bring Gigabot back with them.

Some Brazilians suggested we manufacture the machines down here, thus circumventing the complicated customs process.  But the Brazilian market is notoriously difficult to break into, so the conundrum is how to test the popularity of Gigabot in the country if we can’t sell it here.  The Brazilians we talked to stressed the importance of targeting the massive Brazilian market, so it’s something we need to explore as a company.

I can apparently pass for Brazilian.  In Chile, my blonde hair and face in general was a dead giveaway that I was an outsider, but I cannot tell you how many times I was asked today where in Brazil I was from.  The game is over when I can’t reply to them in Portuguese.

We’re looking forward to what Day 2 brings.  We’ve got some exciting prints planned!

Boa noite,

Morgan

Diving into 3D Printing

* Original post from mid 2013 *

Note: This post is adapted from an article written by Morgan Hamel for the Santiago-based magazine “I Love Chile.”

If you had told me a month ago that I would be leaving my hometown of Silicon Valley – the heart of all things tech – to come to Santiago, Chile to work with a startup making 3D printers, I would have thought you had taken one too many deep inhales of the Santiago smog. Yet here I am, gazing out the window at the Andes as I push a 3D printed model of the Chrysler Building and a structure of the inner ear out of my way to write this.

My knowledge of 3D printing before arriving was pretty minimal, so I’ll give you the low-down on how this futuristic technology works. In contrast to traditional subtractive manufacturing, whereby objects are fabricated by removing matter from a piece of raw material, 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing: objects are created by adding layers of material to form a desired shape. You start with a 3D image on the computer – modeled with digital modeling software or downloaded from a website with open-source designs, like Thingiverse. Using a special computer program, you then slice these images into layers that are readable by the 3D printer, and – voilá! – your printer can begin dispensing the layers while your once-two dimensional object comes to 3D life before your eyes. The impact of 3d printing in supply chain is also very fascinating and definitely worth investigating further.

Sounds like something straight from the year 3000, right? Surprisingly enough, this technology has been around for almost two decades. It has even helped to spark the fourth industrial revolution, which will have huge consequences for the business world. Drawing from the process of the then-recently-invented inkjet printer, 3D printing got its start in 1984 when Charles Hull invented stereolithography, a process by which 3D objects were created from digital data. Since its birth, 3D printing has brought us a working kidney (2002), a self-replicating printer (2008), a working car (2011), and a prosthetic jaw (2012). As the technology continues to flourish, we are now beginning to see 3D printers as household items, with the breadbox-sized MakerBot Replicator leading the pack in the desktop printer market.

Right now, the marketplace is awash in desktop 3D printers – microwave-sized machines within the budget of a well-to-do hobbyist who enjoys printing handheld objects. But say you wanted to print something bigger, something like a chair? These printers don’t have the capacity to print something that large. This is where re:3D saw an opportunity. Addressing two of the main barriers to 3D printing – cost and scale – the team built their answer to this problem, and it goes by the name of Gigabot.

The Gigabot is currently the largest consumer printer on the market, boasting a build volume 30x larger than that of a standard desktop printer. The printer excelled in its Kickstarter campaign, meeting its fundraising goal in just over 24 hours and surpassing the target by more than sixfold. At $3,950 USD, it has applications in prototyping industries where the alternatives – like traditional injection molding – start in the tens of thousands of dollars. The team is already looking to become the forerunner in markets beyond the single consumer – aerospace, architecture, design, education, manufacturing, and medicine are just some of the industries where large-scale 3D printing is applicable and cost-effective.

But the team is not stopping there. The next project is already in the works at re:3D – a machine that converts plastic trash into 3D printer input material. This undertaking – a collaboration with Dr. Joshua Pearce of Michigan Tech University – will drive down costs while reducing landfill waste and global resource depletion, all while furthering the company’s vision of a future of sustainable 3D printing where individuals can have ownership over their entire supply chain. The applications range from the average consumer interested in operating a sustainable personal factory to isolated communities like Easter Island, where trash removal is a time-consuming and costly process.

So why Santiago? re:3D was accepted as one of the 103 companies in generation 6 of Startup Chile, an incubator program put on by the Chilean government. This CORFO initiative gives entrepreneurs around the world $40,000, office space, and mentorship under the condition that they move to Santiago for six months to build their companies. Gigabot is currently printing away in the ultra-cool workspace of the STGO MakerSpace (stgomakerspace.com) while the team explores the opportunities for 3D printing in the Latin American market.

While 3D printing has been hailed as the second industrial revolution many are still skeptical. But one needs to look past the knick-knacks and toys, towards the custom prosthetics and organs, the toilet in a developing country printed using the community’s plastic landfill, the astronauts fixing an unexpected breakage while on a mission. Only time will tell if 3D printing is the future, but until then I’ll be here in Santiago, somewhere between the Chrysler Building and inner ear.

Morgan