Samantha Snabes is the CEO for re:3D where she facilitates connections between others printing at the human-scale and/or using recycled materials to access locally-driven manufacturing in 50+ countries. As a serial entrepreneur, she currently volunteers as the Global Chair of the IEEE Entrepreneurship Steering Committee. Previously, she served as the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the NASA HQ and Deputy Strategist supporting the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Directorate after selling a start-up for a DARPA-funded, co-patented tissue culture device. Samantha holds a BS in Biology, BA degrees in International Relations & Hispanic Studies, an MBA with concentrations in Supply Chain Management & International Relations, and certifications as a firefighter & EMT-B.
Samantha, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place?
For as long as I can remember, I dreamt of being an astronaut. Throughout childhood, I went to every camp, seminar, and clinic to learn how to make that dream come true. Using internet searches I obtained the names of working professional astronauts. I then used the phone book to look up those who lived in her home state of Michigan. I called them at their house and said, ‘Hey, I want to be an astronaut. What do I have to do?’. I also received several introductions through the local Young Astronauts Club. When I met with the astronauts, they told me I had to go to college. They also told me I should pick a career in science. I later attended the University of Michigan–Dearborn, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in international studies and Hispanic studies and a minor in psychology. I then went to graduate school, obtaining a master’s degree with concentrations in supply-chain management and international business.
While still unwavering in the desire to become an astronaut, my science education spurred an interest in biosciences. After some astronauts suggested I needed research experience, I started working as a research associate with Aastrom Biosciences while in college and assisted with a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant-funded research project to build an artificial immune system using human stem cells grown from adult bone-marrow samples. My boss and I co-patented the outcome and obtained an exclusive worldwide license from Aastrom. In 2006, we co-founded a company called BioFlow Technology to commercialize the tissue-culture device.
BioFlow was acquired in 2009 during the recession, and during the acquisition process, I learned of an opportunity at Johnson Space Center in Houston to be a strategist supporting the Space Life Sciences program, which focuses on the study of human health and performance in the space environment. Innovation is a huge part of everything at NASA, and eventually, I became a social-entrepreneur-in-residence, exploring how living and working in space could translate to social entrepreneurship. I also had been volunteering with Engineers Without Borders, which taps the skills of engineers to overcome the challenges that keep the world’s poorest people from living healthy, productive lives.
I always had a heart for seeing people be independent and have access to resources, and volunteered a lot, so when I heard about Engineers Without Borders- NASA Johnson Space Center, I got really excited. The peers I worked with at NASA were like-minded people who loved space and science, and giving back. We would volunteer at night after work, and we would use the conference room at JSC at our lunch hour or after work to prototype and build various projects for EWB.
With EWB- NASA JSC I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda. In 2011, myself and co-worker Matthew Fiedler were visiting a hospital in Mugonero when we saw piles of medical and electrical equipment discarded out in the sun. $100,000 to $200,000 machines were just sitting there. The gentleman who was translating explained that the equipment was unusable. I asked why, and he explained that because they are donations, often they’re the wrong voltage, they’re not a cultural fit or they can’t be maintained.
Matthew and I talked about the useless equipment and started surmising how things could be different if the people there could just make their own tools. We would see or hear about similar situations again and again. What we were learning when we were traveling is that people are inherently creative. They want to explore, they want to solve their own problems and they’re super motivated and capable.
3-D printing was just getting popular and the maker movement with open-source printers was kicking off. Matthew had been desktop printing at home, and he and I had both used 3-D printers professionally at work. We started to talk about what it would look like if people globally could 3-D print functional items.
We both really believe in opportunity and locally-driven manufacturing. We started thinking about what people would fabricate for themselves, and the solutions we were seeing through the organizations we were involved with was that those things needed to be bigger than 6 inches, [the norm for desktop 3-D printers]. We looked across the landscape, and there wasn’t an affordable printer that was large-scale.
To us, the answer was simple: They would just have to make one themselves. The affordable, large-scale 3-D printer that we proposed would also serve two other much- needed functions in developing regions of the world: to recycle trash and provide for the ability to make usable items such as composting toilets. We enlisted other friends to join a movement to create a 3-D printer that could create composting toilets from recycled materials like milk jugs, plastic bags and other garbage.
The dimensions for the proposed printer were built around a composting toilet as an extreme example of a functional object a large scale 3D printer could produce with the hope of enabling local problem solvers to innovate independently. We submitted their design for a 3-D printed toilet to the Jack Daniels Independence Project in 2012 ,which was intended to fund entrepreneurs’ passion projects with a $25,000 cash prize.
We really wanted to win the $25,000. We also wanted to win the whiskey barrel [that came with the prize]. We were all fighting over that because we wanted to make furniture out of it. Our team finished as a finalist in the contest, which proved to us that there really was a need for what they were developing. It wasn’t just our friends validating the idea anymore. We weren’t intending necessarily to start a business; we were just wanting to solve a problem.
How did you come to build the company?
After submitting to the Independence Challenge with Instructables, we heard about Start-Up Chile, an initiative that identifies and supports customer-validated and scalable companies that will leave a lasting impact on the Latin American ecosystem. The program provides equity-free startup funds, as well as access to investors, training and mentors. It seemed like the perfect incubator to submit our idea.
The next thing we knew, we received a letter stating we were being awarded $40,000 to start a company, and I was moving to Santiago. Start-Up Chile made it seem like it was really a business. It became very real to me and Matthew.
Both of us quit our jobs to work full time on the company we called re:3D in 2013, and I moved to Chile in January for seven months. We didn’t have any other funding or a prototype. I showed up in Santiago with just an idea in my head.
Back in Texas, another hotbed for innovation was approaching in March: the South By Southwest festival in Austin. I knew we could have a chance at tremendous startup impact if we could get a prototype to SXSW in time. After hearing that Start-up Chile would have a large booth in the SXSW Exhibit hall, we worked out a deal to show off the prototype if Matthew could make it in time, and I could work out the details to launch it on Kickstarter from the booth live. We were dubious it could be done in time, just eight weeks away.
At his home in Houston, Fiedler created the first version of the Gigabot, which would provide industrial-strength, large-format 3-D printing at an affordable price point. There was just one problem: The prototype was too big to fit through his living room door. So, he had to disassemble it, transport it to Austin and reassemble it live on the carpet of the SXSW exhibit hall. But it was done and set up at the booth in time for the opening of the festival. Simultaneously, I was in Santiago putting together a Kickstarter campaign aimed to launch at the same time the Gigabot made its world debut in Austin. It was like the perfect storm. We timed it so that the campaign started right when the booth opened at South By Southwest.
It was a hit. The Kickstarter campaign was funded to its $40,000 goal within 27 hours, quickly surpassing that goal and eventually raising more than a quarter of a million dollars. A story in TechCrunch helped get the word out about the new technology, and suddenly, re:3D was a major player, with orders coming in from throughout the world.
We went really quickly from idea to product, selling globally. We were suddenly in 20 countries, selling to strangers. We then had to find a way to bootstrap a factory.
re:3D has continued to grow rapidly, with a goal to completely disrupt the 3-D printer industry with the introduction of a second portfolio of 3-D printer that could accept shredded plastic waste as the input. The upside of these new pellet printer is that they allow for a 17 percent increase in printing speed, as well as a significant reduction in manufacturing costs, compared with the current method of printing from plastic filament.
Offering both FFF and FGM printers allows re:3D to start actively exploring conversations regarding ways to further support 3D printing accessibility globally and we are excited to hear your feedback and suggestions regarding where we go next.
Could you summarize what re:3D is and the services that you are providing?
re:3D® Inc. is committed to decimating the cost & scale barriers to industrial 3D printing. After pioneering the world’s first affordable, FFF (FDM) human-scale industrial 3D printer, re:3D is now enabling 3D printing directly from reclaimed plastic pellets or flake. We assemble all of our printers by hand from Houston TX and are a full-service provider that can support consulting, materials testing/selection, design, contract printing, on-site training/maintenance and custom printer engineering.
What are some of the challenges of using recycled materials for 3D Printing?
This is just the beginning. Our goal is to print from many types of plastic trash. However, many people are quick to point out why it seems unbelievable or why they don’t see it happening. The reality is developing the infrastructure to print from waste is a really f-ing hard problem. You have to cope with muti- faceted variables and an ecosystem that is specific to each opportunity & demographic. However, our team is amazing and the people that mentored us put people on the moon and built the Saturn 5 which seemed impossible at the time. For this reason, you can’t say that this cannot be solved, but it does take money.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
I think our greatest achievement has been creating the Gigaprize, where we donate one Gigabot for every 100 sold to organizations trying to make a difference. The recipients are amazing humans and stretch our perceptions of what can be achieved through Cartesian 3-D printing.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?
So many! Internally we share our wins and failures every Friday to the entire staff, but recently we’ve become convinced that we need to document our failing more publically. Please hold us accountable to more regularly posting to our Medium blog Zero to Factory in 2020! https://medium.com/zero-to-factory
Have you run into any challenges from being a female entrepreneur in 3D Printing?
Absolutely not. While some of our larger customers might come from a more traditional corporate mindset, what I love about 3-D printing is gender agnostic platform where people care more about what you know/or have made than your background. I love being part of a co-led team that taken 3D printing to new markets & demographics!
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
We’re printing from shredded trash, but depend on your feedback re: what materials we test, what we make and how we pilot this capability with local communities! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions re; where we go from here!
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
At re:3D, we all have our favourite customers/partners using Gigabot. I like composting toilets and things along the humanitarian realm like modified prosthetics. There’s a researcher at TX A&M who came up with a really cool way to use the print itself to treat cancer on a dog that couldn’t be treated otherwise so there’s huge breakout potential. https://re3d.org/veterinary-cancer-treatment-texas-am/
What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?
I think the new materials advances that occur everyday are essential in taking 3-D printing to new markets. However, mass adoption of AM requires changing industry standards to certify acceptance of 3D printing parts. For this reason, the intrapreneurs working to lobby, qualify and promote 3D printing processes are the game- changers to us!
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
- As an entrepreneur?
The ability to problem-solve and create jobs anywhere, anytime independently with 3D printing is hugely exciting to me!
- As a woman?
As shared above, I love that 3D printing is gender agnostic!
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
I think the industry is hugely exciting! I would like to see the industry evolve to recognize researchers at the bench level and small startups, instead of large corporates or consortias as there are literally thousands of amazing humans making valuable contributions every day!
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
Tell women to start now! In 3D printing we are all continuously learning, so the best way to get engaged is to buy a printer and start printing or join a team who shares a passion for AM!
Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)?
Obviously I’m biased but I love the size of Gigabot/Gigabot X and Terabot/ TerabotX. As a non-engineer, I love the user interface of Simplify3D for slicing my print for perfection 🙂
Favorite moment in your day job?
Seeing our team accomplish tasks I used to fulfill better than myself and hearing about community successes.
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?
Creating an automated solution to collect, sort, clean, grind, dry and fed water bottles into a pellet printer to create locally inspired and functional objects.
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview?
Have you interviewed Mara from Matterhackers or Christie Mettes from Brenchies Lab in Aruba?