Pitching something as “toilet-sized” may not be the most enticing first few words. Listeners might even ask founder Samantha Snabes to repeat herself. Did she really just say that? But perhaps it’s a testament to re:3D’s Gigabot that the designation doesn’t seem to get in the way of a booming business. Or maybe it’s the fact that Snabes and the product alike have a strong mission and persuasive story.
It matters that the Gigabot is toilet-sized because it means that it’s designed to print at a human scale -- larger than many other 3D printers on the market. (The company's T shirts are a wink to this, with the slogan "Size Matters.") That means it can print everything from tables to prosthetic legs, using reclaimed plastic. But more on that later.
What’s important is that, since Snabes and co-founder Matthew Fiedler incorporated, first as an LLC, then as a corporation, in 2013, Gigabots are now in more than 50 countries around the world. re:3D is racking up prizes. Last week, it was named Startup of the Year. Thanks to resources found on Alice, the company was also named winner of last year’s WeWork $1M Global Creator Award, the same year that re:3D was a Pitch With Purpose finalist.
This is all impressive on its own, but is even more laudable when you learn that Snabes, a former entrepreneur in residence at NASA, did all of this while an active duty member of the Air National Guard. “In theory, the commitment is one weekend a month,” she explains. But she’s a captain with responsibilities that don’t just disappear when the weekend is over. “I think there are things my peers do that I do a lot less of -- unless I’m on a plane,” she jokes of catching up on everyday pleasures like watching TV and reading.
But why did Snabes and Fiedler, a fellow Engineer Without Borders in Rwanda, decide the world needed a Gigabot? “As we were traveling, what struck me was a huge frustration with supply chains,” Snabes remembers of the product’s inception in 2013. Well-intentioned aid workers couldn’t do what they needed to without supplies, and their plastic waste piled up. Someone needed to step in to take care of both problems. The people they were helping were intelligent and capable, but needed opportunities. “We were trying to help people create their own independence,” she says.
Fiedler was involved in the creation of one of the first open-source 3D printers and knew it could help. Snabes says that at the time she didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur. “But what if people need our stuff?” she asked herself. They took to Kickstarter to see if they could raise funds for a prototype. “We didn’t expect it to be a success,” she recalls. But they reached their $40,000 goal in 25 hours, eventually raising $250,474 from the listing.
And when they started manufacturing the machines, it wasn’t so much the aid organizations that they expected, as big corporations and hospitals. With their purchase, customers get onsite training, maintenance, and support. But not everyone has room for a toilet-sized 3D printer in their facility. For them, re:3D will print whatever they need to-order. While Snabes is pleased that she and her team of 25 are able to “pay the bills and keep the lights on and feed our families,” she’s even more proud that her company is both “doing good and doing well.”
Their Puerto Rican branch is thriving and creating new jobs, and the company is also hiring and growing in Houston and Austin. The last locale is the site of the latest project, which will repurpose plastic waste to make something everyone can use. Hosted by Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, the plastic will be used to make legs for tables whose tops are the doors that are frequently donated to the store but are difficult to place.
But the company is in conversations all over the globe. And six years into their journey, the re:3D team is still learning. Snabes says the best advice she ever got was from a navy admiral during a training exercise early in her career, who told her, “Lieutenant, the one thing you’ve got to remember in your military career is you can be stupid for a day or you can be stupid for your life.” So she keeps asking questions and growing. “When you’re in emerging tech, things are always changing,” she explains. “I hope we’re pretty quick to say we have no idea what we’re doing.”
But really they do, even if it’s on a path that's never been trod before.