3D Printing, Kickstarter and the TSB

Today, the UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) announced a funding competition to develop new 3D printing technology.  It’s called “Inspiring new design freedoms in additive manufacturing / 3d printing” and is offering funding from £100k to £1.5milion for collaborative, business-led design projects to overcome some of the “dirty secrets” of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, with a total funding pot of £7 million.

Over the last year I’ve been watching the rise of 3D printing projects on Kickstarter, as they’ve progressed from fairly simple ones to the more recent, high profiles successes, such as the Formlabs Form 1 3D printer, which is a project to commercialise a printer, software and compounds.  That one project alone has attracted just under $3 million in funding from over 2,000 backers, over 1,000 of whom will end up with 3D printers by next May.

Which made me wonder what the TSB is going to use my tax-payer’s money for in this competition, as it looks as if there is already a perfectly workable funding model to develop 3D printers.  Or do they think that 3D stands for Dead Duck Donations?

Let me say at this stage that I have no problem with Government handing out money to help innovation and small companies.  But the funding model for innovation is changing at the moment, particularly when you look as close to market products.  Whilst I’m still not convinced that many Kickstarter projects will result in commercially viable businesses, not least because they don’t cover real business costs rather than making stuff the project groups enjoy, they’ve certainly changed the way that things can be done, both in terms of getting seed working capital and the speed of making it happen.  And the way that the Government funds innovation needs to evolve to recognise this.

3D printing is an excellent example to demonstrate this, as 3D printers are really cool.  I’ve been following the Kickstarter projects and the Form 1 machine nearly got me to fork out my $3,000 to get one. At the final step I only hesitated because I wasn’t sure where to put it, otherwise I’d have been queuing up to a proud funder/owner.

Let’s compare the TSB and Kickstarter models.  Over the last year there have been 28 projects on Kickstarter that involved some aspect of 3D printing.  Between them they’ve raised just over $5 million dollars and will deliver around 2,000 working products to customers if they meet their promises.  Most of them spend two to three months in their funding phase and plan to complete by delivering products around eight months later.  As far as I can see, all are single companies – in some cases single individuals, who have a passion to make something happen.  Some, like Formlab, are spinning technology out of academic establishments; others are just inventors with good ideas.

The TSB project was announced a couple of months ago and formally opens today (3rd December).  The first stage is inviting interested parties to build up consortia, as the TSB generally takes the view that more cooks improve the broth.  Those consortia need to register their interest by the end of January and submit a final application by the end of March 2013.  The TSB then appoints a number of judges, who will award the funding, which if they’re quicker than normal will be announced by the end of July, with the successful projects starting in September 2013.  That’s almost a year from when this competition was first mooted.  The actual project can then last between two and three years.

In the time it takes to get to next September, I’m guessing that last year’s Kickstarter 3D printer projects will have delivered around 2,000 devices and consumed around $5 million of funding.  3D printing is a hot area – the graph below shows the cumulative funding going into Kickstarter funded projects in the last six months.

Cumulative Kicstarter funding for 3D printer projects

Cumulative funding for Kickstarter 3D printing projects over the last six months

So why does the TSB feel the need to jump on the bandwagon when it’s already left the station?  There are some serious issues with their current funding model, particularly for small companies.

  • The first is the timescale, which means that it’s almost three years from the initial announcement until you might get a product to market.
  • The second is that the desire for collaborative projects confuses the issue of who takes the product to market, particularly if there is IP involved.  And if there’s an academic partner, that’s even worse as most universities have set up departments that will claim ownership of such fine detail as how many lumps of sugar you have in your tea, claiming it’s their IP.
  • The third is that the nature of the process stifles innovation.  Many consortia put more effort into winning the grant than in delivering against the project.

There are now plenty of consultancies and university departments around who make a healthy living on setting up consortia to get TSB and other European development grants.  It’s a complete business sector in its own right, which probably employs more people than are actively developing any new products as a result of those grants.

I’d argue that what 3D printer development and research needs now is more reasonably priced products in the hands of users.  That is how we will find out what works and what is wrong.  And that’s a message that the TSB has taken on board in other areas – notable with their DALLAS program, where they are concentrating on getting assisted living products deployed at scale to learn form them.

This 3D competition shows that there’s still an old guard which wants to do things as they’ve always been done – ignoring new models and funding the dead duck projects and research assistant posts that no-one else will fund.  And there’s often a reason why projects like that should not be funded.  It time to look again at how we support innovation and start-ups.  I’m not convinced that Kickstarter is necessarily the ultimate answer, but in terms of 3D printing, it is showing that the TSB still has a lot to learn about supporting innovation.  I would certainly hope that any application the TSB receives for this competition should be passed through the “Why couldn’t you fund this via Kickstarter?” test.  And they should also be judged on the Kickstarter deliverables level.  I.e. How many products will be delivered within this funding grant?

By the time that the TSB projects finish, Kickstarter will probably have sourced considerably more funding than the TSB competition will provide and generated some commercially successful 3D companies.  Or else it will have shown that this is still an idea waiting for its time to make it to mass market.  I’m hoping it’s the former, as I’m still tempted by that Formlabs machine.  Otherwise we can all go back to reading Cory Doctorow and dreaming about the future.