NC IDEA announces six North Carolina startups as spring grant winners and recipients of a collective $300,000. This story is part of a series of profiles on the winners.
3D printing has transformed all sorts of industries, from aerospace to healthcare to consumer products to art and even jewelry. But a key challenge is preventing even wider spread usage—it’s just too slow and expensive to use existing 3D printing technology to make large quantities of metal or ceramic products.
This is a challenge NC IDEA grant recipient Trio Labs hopes to meet head-on, with a new 3D printer that fabricates high-quality precision metal and ceramic parts at, what founders say, an unprecedented pace.
The objective for the technology is three-fold: to match the precision of existing systems, to produce metals and ceramics at high volumes and speeds and to do so more affordably than using conventional manufacturing techniques.
Trio Labs was founded in 2015 by entrepreneur and inventor Adam Steege, who previously cofounded Agile Endosurgery, which developed medical instruments that allow doctors to perform minimally invasive endoscopic surgery. It was during this time when Steege first encountered the frustrating lack of 3D printing technology to fuel large-scale production for Agile’s prototypes.
He started Trio Labs alongside COO Cathy Eldridge, who founded and still leads a consulting group that helps senior management teams with budgeting, planning and meeting leadership goals. (Steege and Eldridge are pictured above at their pitch for NC IDEA’s spring 2017 grant cycle.)
Combining Steege’s background in technology and Eldridge’s business development experience, the two molded Trio Labs around a goal to transition 3D printing from a prototyping and low-volume production method to a new standard of mass production, and at a lower cost than traditional methods.
So far, the team has built its first metal printer prototype to prove the technology, simultaneously engaging with several angel investors with experience in technology and manufacturing. They also raised seed funding from a group of angel investors.
The startup has been a resident at the Research Triangle Park-based incubator First Flight Venture Center throughout this process. Steege says the center has provided an environment filled with like-minded entrepreneurs facing similar challenges as they also grow their startups. The experience also unlocked the opportunity for Trio Labs to build a board of advisors that can help the team address those challenges.
The NC IDEA grant gives Trio Labs some traction to eventually raise a Series A round. Funds will be used to move from proof-of-concept to a high-performance version that Steege expects will yield better precision than existing metal printers.
“As important as the technology is, working with customers early in the process to ensure a strong fit between our technology and their needs is the best path to success,” Steege says.
Researchers forecast the overall 3D printing market to grow 28.5 percent annually between 2016 and 2022. Demand is especially increasing for metal and ceramics printing. A 2016 EY survey found that 52 percent of companies worldwide see metal printing as crucial in the decision to adopt 3D printing techniques, especially within high-production demand, metal-heavy industries like mechanical and plant engineering.
NC IDEA was drawn to Trio Labs’ projected impact on the specialized manufacturing field, says Thom Ruhe, the foundation’s president and CEO. The 3D printing technology overrides expensive and time-consuming methods of cutting tools and mold fabrication.
Given the level of disruption the startup could cause, he adds, the decision to award Trio Labs a grant in this cycle was an easy one.