Student inventors get boost to commercialize color 3-D printing, iPhone app

October 31, 2014 By David Tenenbaum

Photo: Chase Haider adjusts a commercial 3-D printer

Chase Haider adjusts a commercial 3-D printer as he develops an add-on device that allows the printer to produce objects in color. Haider and Cédric Kovacs-Johnson invented the device as chemical engineering students.

Photos: David Tenenbaum

Taking something good and making it better is one proven route to entrepreneurial success. Henry Ford took the handmade automobile and built it faster and cheaper on an assembly line. Steve Jobs redesigned the personal computer to make it usable by “the rest of us.”

Both built substantial businesses based on the logic of improvement.

Applying a similar approach to the 3-D printer, a group of University of Wisconsin–Madison students are commercializing a device that adds color to a printer that now dominates the market. Their business idea was one of two student projects to receive an Igniter grant from the university’s Discovery to Product (D2P) office.

The 15 grants announced this summer, including $200,000 for the printer project, support innovations from food and biomedical engineering to medicine, and are funded with a $2.4 million State of Wisconsin Economic Development Incentive Grant.

Photo: Sample color palette

This sample color palette was produced by the group that is developing the color 3-D printer.

John Biondi, director of D2P, says the grants are intended to support campus innovators “with proven technologies that have the potential to advance quickly to market, but who have not formed companies yet.”

3-D printers have the uncanny ability to transform software code into a three-dimensional object. These printers lay down, or extrude, layers of plastic to build objects that cannot be made in any other way.

The color printer’s originators, 2014 chemical engineering graduates Cédric Kovacs-Johnson and Chase Haider, invented a patent-pending technology to obtain a wide range of colors from a single extruder. “They knew 3-D was cool,” says Taylor Fahey, a computer science major who directs software development for the group, “but if you wanted to switch color, you needed multiple extruders, and the colors could not be blended.”

Instead of making entire printers, the strategy is to sell an add-on for the most popular 3-D printer; the beta version of the device is to be offered in a couple of months to an initial market of hobbyists. “You buy our device, hook it up, load the software, and you are ready to go,” Fahey says.

A second Igniter grant went to Saul Laufer, a computer science student who has discovered a legal hack that enables smartphones to work with multiple phone numbers.

Fahey, who was raised in Shakopee, Minnesota, began coding websites at age 13. By 18, he had started and sold a Web-design business. He has already hired one employee for the printer project.

A second Igniter grant went to Saul Laufer, a computer science student who has discovered a legal hack that enables smartphones to work with multiple phone numbers. The idea sprouted last spring, when Laufer “pitched” an idea about home automation to a class on starting computer businesses — and got yawns in response.

Comp sci professor Paul Barford suggested that Laufer switch to his idea for the iPhone app. The enthusiastic reaction in class persuaded Laufer to shift to an app that he hopes will appeal to businesses that issue smart phones but want employees to make personal calls on private lines. Doctors are another market, Laufer says. “They don’t want to give out their phone numbers, but I give them the opportunity to have a number that is outgoing only.”

“I had Saul in my entrepreneurship class last spring,” says Barford. “We were giving students a background in software entrepreneurship, and the class draws students who are a little more bold. Even among the bold students, Saul certainly stood out.”

Laufer, 24, was raised in California and Bayside, Wisconsin, and took two years off to play guitar, piano and synthesizer before entering UW–Madison. Until recently, his was a solo effort. His idea received $50,000 in the first round of D2P awards.