3D printing – an amazing future, but not here today

By | 3D | One Comment

When I talk about our strategy of backing companies that build products people love, and say that some of those will be physical products people often remark that 3D printing must be an exciting enabling technology for us. That will be true one day in the not too distant future, but it isn’t true today. 3D printing is improving fast in terms of materials that can be printed and the price is dropping fast, most obviously in consumer printers, some of which are now retailing for sub $500, but other than prototyping there aren’t many large scale commercial applications for 3D printing.

The reason is that the finish and durability of most 3D printed plastics falls short of market requirements and that unit prices are generally too high for anything other than very short runs. That limits the commercial applications of 3D printing to high price complex products that are difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. Hearing aids are a good example, they can be custom printed to match a patient’s ear and the internal structures can be better optimised to carry sound using 3D printing than any other manufacturing method. Body panels for specialist cars are another good example, their complex shapes can be printed as single pieces whereas alternative manufacturing methods produce multiple items that need to be assembled.

I doubt it will be too long before we back a company that is leveraging 3D printing to build an amazing new product, but before that happens we will most likely see a few companies in this space that we choose not to back. That hasn’t happened yet.

Thinking about new market opportunities case study: 3D printed figurines

By | 3D, Innovation, Startup general interest | 4 Comments

Regular readers will know that I’m excited about the emerging opportunities that 3D printing technologies are enabling. In fact I’ve been looking for an investment in this area for nearly two years now. My first thought was that falling costs and rising quality would unlock opportunities in the consumer space, but none of the opportunities we have looked at worked out, mostly because the use cases weren’t compelling enough or were too niche.

Now that you have that background you will understand that when I saw the headline 3D printing ‘photo booths’ popping up across the world I clicked straight through. The article, which is on the excellent Singularity Hub, rightly notes that there has been a lot of talk about 3D printing this year, and that ‘tech experts are still looking for something that will signal the technology’s best bet to transition from hype to mainstream application’. I’m with them up to that point, but then they say ‘Today, one application seems poised to accomplish this. Call it 3D printed figurines, personal miniatures, or photo sculptures’.

That is where I think they got it wrong. Here’s why.

When I’m assessing the market opportunity for new products I like to ask two questions:

  1. What do people do at the moment which suggests they will want the new product?
  2. What spend or activity will the new product displace?

Strong answers to these questions suggests that there will be demand for the product. There are a host of other questions that follow, not least ‘can it be profitably sold at a sensible price point?’ but with good answers here you have got something to work with.

Some examples:

  • Streaming music services:
    1. people already listened to music so they should like a new more convenient service better
    2. the activity and spend to be displaced was spending money on downloads and CDs and listening to MP3 players and traditional stereos
  • Twitter:
    1. people have always devoted significant time and money on showing their friends how cool/connected/intelligent they are and staying up to date with news and what their friends are doing
    2. the activity to be displaced was inefficient surfing of the web, writing of personal blogs, and sending of emails
  • Enterprise software products (generic)
    1. in most new product categories demand is evident because companies have hacked together custom solutions
    2. the spend to be displaced is money given to custom developers and systems integrators

I think 3D figurines are very cool, and I can see myself giving them as presents and maybe even buying one for myself, but when I apply these questions I come up blank. I can’t think of anything people do that suggest they really need 3D printed figurines and I can’t think of any spend that could be displaced. I would bet that when people are buying figurines the money is coming from their discretionary pot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t indicate to me that there is a sustainable market here. My guess is that at best we might see a fad where lots of us give these figurines as presents for a short while, but then the novelty will where off and we will be onto the next thing. I also don’t think the quality is great and hence the novelty value will be short lived.

3D printing expanding through the industrial world vertical by vertical – now dental crowns

By | 3D | One Comment

If software is eating the world then 3D printing is atomising its factories and production centres. The 3D printing trend is less advanced than the software trend, but it’s coming. I’m writing this today having just read that one in ten dentists (I assume in the US) are 3D printing replacement crowns for their patients on-site while they wait. This is how it works (from SingularityHub):

Instead of making a mold and sending it to a lab for scanning, dentists are now using a small camera to scan the misshapen teeth directly. The digitized scan is then sent to an on-site milling machine that carves the crown from a block of porcelain – in about an hour. After about 15 minutes of preparation the crown is ready to be implanted. …. Normally getting a crown, a restorative ceramic cap that is cemented atop a damaged tooth, begins with the dentist drilling into the damaged tooth for a good fit. After drilling, a mold is made of the tooth, and the mold is sent to an outside lab where its 3D structure is scanned and digitized. That digitized image is then sent back to the dentist who makes modifications as needed, and once again it’s back to the lab where the crown is finally made. The entire process normally takes about two weeks. In the meantime, the dentist implants a temporary filling to protect the drilled tooth.

The article doesn’t comment on whether the 3D printed crowns are cheaper than traditional alternatives, but with 3D printing costs halving each year if it isn’t now it soon will be. Then before long all dentists will be using a system like this and an entire mini-vertical will have been transformed.

This isn’t the first, that was rapid proto-typing, which has been slowly adopting 3D printing over the last twenty years. The second vertical to go was hearing aids where I’ve heard up to 90% of high end hearing aids are now 3D printed. Patients ears are scanned and a high resolution 3D printer makes a hearing aid that fits them perfectly and has audio channels that work more effectively than is possible with traditional manufacturing.

As the price of 3D printing falls and the resolution and ranges of materials increases other verticals will drop, starting with small sized objects like teeth and hearing aids. A company called Sirona sells the machines dentists use to 3D print crowns. That’s a $914m revenue business now and well past the stage of venture capital investment. I’m on the lookout for equivalent companies that are just beginning to disupt other markets. 

Developments in 3D printing

By | 3D | One Comment

I’m in Leuven, Belgium for most of this week visiting 3D printing leader Materialise and attending their 3D printing conference. For most of you Materialise is a lead contender for the ‘most successful and innovative European company you’ve never heard of’. The business is 20 years old, has 1,000 employees in 15-20 countries, and most importantly works on a lot of amazing projects. Some of them are inspirational from a design perspective, others from a business growth perspective (particularly in the medical field), some for their sheer amazingness, and still others for their beneficial impact on the environment and other world issues.

I’m here because it seems to me we are on the cusp of a massive increase in consumer use of these technologies, but the surprising thing for me at this conference so far has been the extent to which 3D printing has been adopted in other industries. Just about every company I talk to here is doubling sales each year.

The hearing aid industry is perhaps the most advanced user of 3D printing, where due to the benefits of personalised better fitting devices and improved performance from audio channel structures not possible with conventional manufacturing over 10m 3D printed hearing aids are now in use, including virtually all new ones. 3D printed Knee replacements, hip replacements, dental implants, teeth braces, precisely fixtures and fittings, and engineering components are also all seeing massive growth

This market growth is backed up by a lot of great stories and numbers that I’ve been asked not to share, but I will say that some of it is truly incredible, particularly the inside story of the recent Belgian face transplant.

It is also interesting to think about where this is going next. As the Materialise guys see it, at the moment 3D printing in volume is rarely cost effective for anything with a volume greater than a large marble or maybe a tennis ball. Improvements in technology and materials costs are driving costs down fast though and applications with slightly larger volumes are therefore good candidates for adoption of 3D printing in the near future.

At the moment these technologies are being put to incredible uses, but they are too expensive for most large scale applications. That is changing fast though as advances are driving down prices and increasing quality.

3D printing – rapidly getting easier

By | 3D | 5 Comments

We first started to get interested in 3D printing a year or so back, and at that I played with a number of the services on the market, but the experience wasn’t easy, and 3D printers in the home still seemed some way off.

Both those things are now changing fast.

The usability challenge was that the modelling tools were difficult to use and the integration with 3D printing services was difficult.  In just 20 minutes earlier today I modelled the design below on 3dtin and then exported it to i.materialise where I was able to send it off to be 3D printed.  Hopefully it will arrive in a couple of days.


3dtin was incredibly easy to use, so much so that I could see my seven year old daughter modelling stuff as part of her schoolwork or to play with at home.  The ‘so easy a child could use it’ also struck the folks at Origo, who are planning to make a 3D printer for children (prototype picture below).  I want one of those.


3D officionados amongst you will have noted that Makerbot recently raised $10m to grow their home assembly 3D printer kit business, so we have affordable 3D printers in the home already, although their product is best for early adopters who are good with a screwdriver.

I believe that 3D printing will be more revolutionary than 2D printing.  The possibilities are almost limitless, and it now feels like the timing for the market is almost on us.  A friend of mine (David Brown, founder of recently bought a Makerbot and he emailed me saying he was coding for it in the dark with his headphones on, and that it felt like 1993 all over again.

(For those that are wondering Man, is my wife’s maiden name and the F is short for Fiona.  I went for Man rather than Brisbourne because it is shorter.  Considerably so…)

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Musings on the future for virtual worlds

By | 3D, Business models, Second Life, Social networks, Virtual Worlds | 5 Comments

There are two big takeaways for me from the Virtual Worlds Forum conference I have been attending for the last couple of days.

The first is a firming up of a conclusion that I have been coming too for a while – there is huge opportunity at the nexus of virtual worlds, games (probably casual) and social networks.

Habbo Hotel is a good example of this, as are new companies that are here at the conference MoshiMonsters from Mind Candy and Moipal.

Games, social nets and virtual worlds are coming together and that is creating opportunities for new companies that are radically different from their forbears that have focused in one of the three areas. I think the best will be easy to learn, work well with short session times be social, and have an interesting and continually developing content story. The revenue model will be about subscriptions and/or virtual goods and/or advertising.

Which brings me to my second point – there is already huge opportunity (by which I mean dollar opportunity) for brand advertising in virtual worlds.
Until now I had seen the empty brand sponsored spaces in Second Life and the comparatively small numbers of active users and concluded that the brand budgets coming into the world are experimental, and were not at the point where they would really start to scale.

Not so.

The combination of deep engagement and response rates as high as 30% are getting brands to the point where they are parting with budgets they would normally reserve for campaigns with high headline impressions numbers. The key to this is the quality of the campaigns which contribute significant new content to the worlds. Habbo Hotel in particular is blazing a trail here.

3D fun on a Friday afternoon

By | 3D, Virtual Worlds | No Comments

Regular readers will know I’m a believer in the web going 3D, well parts of it anyway.  I blogged recently  about Sun’s  and IBM’s interest in the area, and then yesterday I got invited to an IBM conference on the subject in July.

So I’ve been checking out a few things – and the space is definitely getting hotter.

For the IBM conference you can either go in person or participate via Active Worlds – so I went in there to have a look and found myself having a right laugh with a guy from Australia.  Compared to Second Life the world was incredibly easy to use – a real joy, I was flying around in no time and practicing my dancing and karate kicks. is another virtual world I’ve been having a play around in that’s quite fun.

Fotowoosh is a cool little service that takes 2D photos and makes them 3D.  Different type of thing entirely but I wonder if something a bit like this could be used to good effect on ecommerce sites.  Check out how it looks in these samples below.

I can’t shake the feeling that somehow, somewhere, some really useful mainstream apps are going to come out of this stuff.  I’m not sure what they will be, and I can’t put my finger on anything more than training and conferences yet.

Have a good weekend.

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Sun Virtual Workspace

By | 3D, IBM, Second Life, Virtual Worlds | 2 Comments

Check out this video of Sun’s Virtual Workspace. They have built a Second Life style collaboration environment focused on commerce. Very cool.

More detailed info is available on Sun’s site here. They call the initiative MPK20 (obviously not because they want me to remember it).

Being like Second Life, it is avatar based. The idea is you walk your avatar around your virtual office collaboratinig with your colleagues. It looks like voice conversation and document sharing are supported.

All pretty handy given that on any given day 50% of Sun’s workforce is remote.

I’ve been saying for a long time now that Second Life and Habbo Hotel show the power and popularity of 3D environments, that both of those are niche worlds (albeit large niches), and that there must be space for something in between that is easier to use and more focused on a real life application. It looks like the folks at Sun are thinking the same way.

Similarly, I am hearing from IBM that they believe 3D virtual worlds can (will?) be a $1bn revenue line for them in the next few years. That is why they are so active in Second Life.

It feels to me like there is a big market here waiting to be created. Virtual offices might be a great driver.

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Consumer internet – the changing nature of the game

By | 3D, Blogging, Business models, Entrepreneurs, MySpace, Venture Capital, Web2.0 | 2 Comments

I have been thinking for some time that the extreme capital efficiency of many web2.0 businesses is a feature of where we are in the cycle and will start to come under pressure as the sector matures.  So when Max Bleyleben – in his post on Web2.0 bubble debate in full swing pointed me to Tom Evslin on Fractals of Change writing about how marketing costs will go up I decided to post about it.
Tom’s main point is that before the blogosphere got busy it was easy for companies to get themselves noticed for relatively small amounts of money, but now that is getting harder and is starting to require more money.
I agree with that wholeheartedly – one of the reasons I have been able to achieve some success with this blog is that I was one of the first European venture capital blogs, and the first to post something pretty much every day.
Marketing into a void is easy.
Tom also hints that development costs may start to rise.  One of the features of the web2.0 phenomenon has been the use of open source software to launch beta services quickly and cheaply.  A lot of these services have been great steps forward, but are still primitive when compared with where we might end up.  Think about the early blogging tools or the challenges in setting up some of the early personal home page sites.
These services got fantastic traction because they were light years better than the alternative (which was often ‘do it yourself’).  Then they improved based on user feedback and were able to bootstrap themselves very effectively.
The next generation of consumer internet services might need to have more features and a more polished service to get that initial traction – if so that will mean more development time, and more money.
Factoring in an increased need for marketing spend makes the problem worse.  Getting good value out of a marketing campaign means getting the timing right – and the temptation for many will be to delay the marketing campaign until they feel really good about the product – further increasing the cash requirements.
I am generalising a lot here.  Many new consumer internet services will be in new areas and their challenges will be less.  But many will be seeking to challenge the likes of MySpace and Bebo, for example maybe by offering a more immersive 3D type experience.  Doing that will cost money.
I am describing a change in the way consumer internet companies are built and funded and I will have a look at some of the implications of that in a later post.

Second Life Reality Check

By | 3D, Second Life, Social networks, Virtual Worlds | 2 Comments

Second Life log 

Alan over on Broadstuff has been saying for a while now that Second Life is overhyped – this is the latest in a series of posts.  In it he points to a ValleyWag post Second Life – A story too good to check.

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I am fan of Second Life and a believer in the potential of virtual worlds to have a significant impact on the way we live our lives.  I retain that view, but now with less conviction that anything will happen quickly.

The ValleyWag post is a reality check on the state of Second Life.  The post is well worth a full read.  The four main arguments are:

  1. The numbers are overstated – the headline grabbing announcement of 1m residents in (I think it was) October, and then 2m a couple of months later mask much smaller numbers of active users.  It may even be that our Second Life Real World Millionaire is not as real as we were led to believe.
  2. Second Life is the sort of story the media like and so gets over-reported.  I particularly like the twist that a lot of what is reported is top down unilateral activity – Reuters has a resident journalist, XYZ brand opens an SL store, etc – this reporting on what decision makers are dong is “catnip to the press”, but the really interesting thing is the bottom up activity.  I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone – the press releases come out and it all sounds very cool, the bottom up activity meanwhile is harder to make stories out of.
  3. The virtual world story is old hat and the promises of what it can do are nothing new.  They didn’t pan out last time round and they won’t pan out this time either.
  4. Virtual worlds aren’t really good places to do many things – 3D interfaces are not the best for most things that we like to do online

The first two arguments are good ones.  Very good.  The third and fourth I am not so sure about. 

Most successful companies are not the first ones with their idea, they are the ones who get the timing right.  Skype wasn’t the first VOIP company, delicious wasn’t the first social bookmarking company and so on.  Broadband is making the timing right for a lot of applications that failed before and so it could well be with virtual worlds/Second Life.  As someone pointed out in the comments on the Valleywag post the user content creation tools in SL are on a different level to anything we have seen before – that is the power of the SL 20MB client, something that wouldn’t have worked until recently.

I’m not so sure that the folks at Linden Labs will be losing too much sleep over the fourth point either.  The community at SL may be smaller than we had thought, but it is a vibrant community none the less, and it is still growing.  Vibrant and growing – that would keep me happy.

Moreover, some dominant activities do seem to be emerging – gambling being one, and I’m sure others will come over time as well.  If you think of SL as a 3D social network (which in many ways I do) then this issue of what people are doing is second order.  The important thing is that people are spending time there.  That tells you they have found something they like doing.  It would of course be nice if there was a Second Life killer app, and one may emerge (or move there from the real world) but belittling SL because you can’t see it today is to somehow miss the point.

One thing I think the folks at Linden won’t be so happy about though is the way they are perceived to have misled the world with high headline resident numbers.  They made a mistake here and now they are paying for it.  I blogged last week that companies should take control by defining their key metrics and publishing them on their websites.  If you are going to do that you had better make sure your figures are not misleading (flattering is good, misleading is a step too far).  Otherwise, you will end up where SL is.  There might be a school of thought that says they got the good PR so be dammed with it, but I’m not so sure about that.  These things usually come round to hurt you in the end.