The case for Desktop Metal, the next big Boston innovation company
This past week, Ric Fulop was awarded the “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the New England Venture Capital Associations annual NEVY awards for the VC community (A good event for networking and celebrating the Boston innovation community, but also a bit of a surreal experience, since, you know, it gives out awards to venture capitalists.)
I believe that Fulop is most definitely one of the top entrepreneurs in the Boston-area, but I think a better title to bestow upon him is the “Best Executive to Lead the Startup with the Most Potential for Unimaginable Success.” He is a visionary and a great leader, but what he has built at Desktop Metal, the cutting-edge metal 3D printing developer, is bigger than Fulop alone.
This was quite evident on a recent trip I made to Desktop Metal’s headquarters in Burlington.
Sitting down with Fulop as he went through a presentation of what exactly DM is up to was an enlightening experience.
Fulop is best known as the founder of A123 Systems, the lithium-ion battery maker, and for five years as a VC with North Bridge. While at North Bridge, he led the firm’s investment in Markforged, which at the time was developing a carbon fiber 3D printing system. Fulop even sat on the company’s board for a while. In the past couple of years something interesting happened, Fulop pulled together a team of experts to go after the metal printing space at around the same time Markforged expanded its machines to also print metal. When I asked him about the two companies, Fulop told me that they are a “very different technology” from Markforged. I’m not sure what the exact nature of the relationship between the companies is, but Fulop included Markforged in his slide presentation as one of the companies he has backed as an investor.
The move to conquer the 3D metal printing space is a shrewd one for Desktop Metal. As Fulop pointed out, most of the hardware already being used for this type of fabrication is expensive, cumbersome, slow, and have an array of safety precautions that add time, cost, and instability to the process. The genius of Desktop Metal is that, as its name suggests, it is safe, affordable, and small enough to be used in an office.
The two products that the company announced, one that allows for fabrication on a small scale and one that is geared from the mass-production of printed metal parts have already made massive waves in the industry.
But more than Fulop and the product, it is the people that make up Desktop Metal that, from my experience touring their facility, will push this company into the same conversation as companies such as iRobot, and potentially beyond.
From it VP of software, Rick Chin, to its metallurgists to its lead engineer of sintering, Mark Sowerbutts, everyone I spoke with was giddy with joy to be working on this project. The passion that was evident for what they were building is unparalleled in my experiences engaging with local companies of all sizes.
Sowerbutts in particular, standing in a room surrounded by older sintering hardware — massive kiln like machines used to heat and coalesce the metal — was like a kid in a candy shop showing off the differences from what currently exists in the industry to the products that Desktop Metal has devised for the process.
More than the impressive numbers for the financial opportunity that exists in the industry that Fulop showed off, the 138 patents that Desktop Metal has filed for their innovations is incredible. And that is the product of those outside of the C-suite.
For Desktop Metal, how big they can grow depends on the people involved, and, in my experiences, what Fulop has pulled together is impressive.
As Fulop told me, “Nobody here is wearing training wheels. They’ve gone through $1 billion IPOs and have Ph.D.’s.” While that is impressive, their obvious love for what they are creating will be the defining feature as Desktop Metal grows into one of the areas potentially next big companies.
This week, DataPoint Capital’s Scott Savitz said that the company in his portfolio that isn’t getting the type of love it should is Smart Lunches, a fresh and healthy lunch delivery program for school systems.
The reason they are so under-the-radar, according to Savitz is that Smart Lunches’ CEO David Morris is “probably as modest and heads down as it gets and just doesn’t look at all for media attention.” In an email conversation, Morris concurred with Savitz’s assessment.
“All he cares about is providing the best service and killing it,” Savitz added. He also said that Smart Lunches is “somewhere around a million dollars a month in lunches with the start of the new school year.”
Savitz has a ton of praise for Morris, who he said “has built a great business, team, and product.”
What went down this week…
$50M – That’s the funding number for LevelUp, the payments company that many people I’ve spoken to in Boston over the past few years had worried about. Many of the concerns had to do with the space — the payments space is highly competitive — as well as concerns a few years ago about CEO Seth Priebatsch’s readiness and maturity to lead the company.
While there were a couple public issues a few years ago, over the past four years, Priebatsch and the LevelUp team have been heads down, building out the product.
And that worked as it was it just got a $50 million lift from the likes of J.P. Morgan Chase, Highland, and GV.
I asked Priesbatsch if this was validation to prove the naysayers wrong, but he wouldn’t bite, showing just how far he has grown as a CEO.
What he did say was that “Boston’s a great place to build and grow a fintech startup. A huge amount of talent, a growing hub of activity and 6 long months of winter to force us to hunker down and actually get work done.”
“We’ve really appreciated the support we’ve received from the community here and look forward to using our new space in the financial district to host events, hackathons, learning nights and more.”
BIG Evolution – One of the most important networking events that helped promote some of the biggest up-and-coming startups in Boston was Webinno, which was run by NextView’s David Beisel. Companies like Dropbox and Crashlytics showed off their nascent products at the events that were always packed with a who’s who of tech and innovation leaders.
Webinno evolved recently to become the Boston Innovation Group, or BIG for short, and it just announced that it is shifting yet again to be more subject matter oriented. You can read more about it in Beisel’s blog post on the matter. It was announced that the first of these will focus on voice computing. Should be interesting.