Chattanooga launches the nation 3D printing accelerator, mixing its manufacturing past with a hi-tech future

By James Robinson , written on June 16, 2014

From The News Desk

Shut your eyes and make a mental guess of where you'd expect America’s first 3D printing startup accelerator to be based.

Now let me venture a related guess – that you're wrong.

Gigtank, a business accelerator that has turned its third incoming class over to helping companies working with 3D printing, isn't based in Silicon Valley, New York, or any other technology hot bead. It's based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

How many of you predicted that? None? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

It’s surprising that an accelerator in Chattanooga would be the first to play host to such an idea. But Mike Bradshaw, Gigtank’s Director, puts it in simple context: its existence is a simple combination of two local factors.

Chattanooga’s history as one of America’s manufacturing strongholds dates back as far as the American Civil War. But by the 1980s, it was in the grip of mass layoffs and a crumbling economy.

Take that manufacturing history, Bradshaw says, and factor in that Chattanooga is the first city in America to have a municipally owned fiber optic broadband network – Forget Google, theirs was completed in September 2010 and offers residents access to Internet speeds that can run as fast as a gigabit-per-second, 100 times above the national average – and Gigtank is the result. Critically, the fiber-optic network has meant that young entrepreneurs don’t have to leave anymore, Bradshaw says. They can enjoy the lifestyle and affordability of Chattanooga without being at a technological disadvantage.

Gigtank was founded to make the most of these new opportunities that the high speed Internet offered the fledgling Chattanoogan startup ecosystem. Bradshaw says that he’d long thought about how the city’s manufacturing past could be melded with this new future.

As Bradshaw eventually arrived, 3D printing is a technology that is one of the ultimate combinations of software and hardware. It is the future of manufacturing, playing itself out in a town that is filled with ghosts of America's industrial past. In that way, it feels perfect for Nashville. Bradshaw feels it's an area of the market on which Gigtank can have a positive impact on.

“3D printing is one of the great entrepreneurial opportunities of our age,” Bradshaw says. “But it seems to be trapped at the moment inside research institutions and the Maker movement.”

Beyond that, 3D printing creates an inordinate amount of data and relies heavily on cloud computing to process and compute a lot of information into detailed, three-dimensional design schematics. For instance, when I had my own head 3D printed recently, it was all powered by a free app that broke thirty, eight megapixel photos down into 240 million pixels and analyzed them one-by-one in the cloud. Perfect work for a high speed data network.

As the 3D printing business accelerator idea developed, Bradshaw saught feedback from the Chattanooga community by planning a mini-Maker Day at the local library. It took him six weeks and cost him $540 of his own money. Eighteen hundred people came.

“It was a little carnival of 3D printing,” he laughs.

3D printing giants 3D Systems and Stratasys have donated expensive 3D printing equipment to make Gigtank's new focus possible and have championed the first iteration of this niche accelerator. Just a month into this inaugural 3D printing-focused 10 week class and Bradshaw notes the two giant companies appear hugely excited about what they’re seeing.

“They’re telling me that they’ve never seen anything like this before,” Bradshaw says.

For the development of 3D printing as a technology, Gigtank represents a watershed moment, where for the first time there’s now enough startup activity building up on the back of this disruptive new technology to warrant its own accelerator.

Gigtank makes a “little, teenie seed investment” in each participating company of $15,000, to borrow Bradshaw's words. The companies in residence are at the cutting edge of the cutting edge: Nestegg Bio, for example, is experimenting with how to create vascular networks in 3D printed organic material; 3DOps builds multi-material replications of body parts for doctors to perform surgeries on; and Feetz, a startup competitor at Southland, wants to 3D print shoes.

The hard part is that Bradshaw and Gigtank are early entrants to a space where every company -- startup or otherwise -- is similarly ahead of its time. Even companies I’ve spoken too that are doing well with 3D printing talk openly about the impossibility of having a firm picture of where the market might go as this technology explodes. With this Gigtank class, Bradshaw is betting on companies who will be playing according to changing sets of rules.

“It’ll be easy to look back and claim a method,” Bradshaw says, reflecting on how he might feel if one of this year's participants blows up. “The truth is, nobody knows right now. It’s mysterious and non-linear. But it you don’t get in the game, you won’t win. And the companies that learn when it’s hard will later have the advantage.”

This year's 3D printing focus was originally planned as a one-off, but it’s a plan that Bradshaw thinks might have legs. (That is, if coastal copycats don’t lay claim to the idea and turn Chattanooga’s geographical isolation against it.)

“We’re going to take it year-by-year,” Bradshaw says. “But I think the answer is yes. We want this to mark a point in time. We want this to become a model.”