NEW YORK, - While hundreds of thousands of people marched against climate change in New York City, across town, two young Canadian entrepreneurs displayed an invention they hope might put a little dent in the global carbon footprint.
The business partners from Waterloo, Ont., took home a couple of the judges' ribbons at a technology fair Sunday afternoon, as they showed off an adaptor that allows home-style 3D printers to work with additional materials.
Hooked up to one of these syringe-like contraptions, they say, a home unit is no longer confined to just printing plastic. Suddenly, a high-tech do-it-yourselfer's repertoire might include ceramic, wood filler, clay, hydrogels — pretty much any viscous substance that can be squeezed through a little tube, at room temperature.
"Are you 3D printing Nutella?!" one woman burst out as she arrived at the display stand for Structur3D.
Yes, in fact, they were.
Playing to the local crowd, they'd even set up a 3D printer to draw a chocolatey replica of a New York Yankees logo.
"We're the first 3D company in the world to print using Nutella," said Charles Mire, one of the two company co-founders who attended the Maker Faire event over the weekend. On the table a few metres away was a syringe filled with wasabi sauce, as he and partner Andrew Finkle tried to create some Japanese culinary art from that sinus-scorching root paste.
About 85,000 people attended the weekend event in Queens, organizers said. Across the East River, a much bigger crowd was marching in Manhattan to put pressure on governments on the eve of a United Nations climate summit.
Mire made the point that his $379 gizmo also has serious applications, beyond Nutella spreads. One of those happens to be environmental — a buy-local movement, if you will, narrowed down to your own house.
"It's one less trip (people) have to make to the store. It's one less thing they have to order off of the Internet," Mire said.
"They can use locally sourced materials or make things in their own homes. In a way, it really could reduce carbon footprints on a cumulative level... So it's just a small contribution, on a very large problem."
The partners were already talking to other people at the fair about additional, serious applications.
Those people included volunteers at the E-nable project, which builds prosthetic limbs by crowdsourcing ideas and then printing them in 3D. They had a variety of models on display, to illustrate that the newest ones keep getting better.
The volunteers suggested a technology like the one from Ontario might improve things even more, in a couple of ways: first, by simplifying the printing of fingertips with a better grip, and also by improving compatibility with the wrist.
"A big issue prosthetic users have is the interface between actual skin and product," said one volunteer, Mohit Chaudhary. "Soft materials, like silicone or anything else that might be extruded, is a viable option to make it more comfortable for the user."
There are a few constraints to the printing technology — aside from the obvious requirement of owning a $500-$1,000 home 3D machine. They can't print metal, or anything that might have to be melted to squeeze through a tube. And they print slowly — which is fine for making the occasional widget, or a cake, or even a prototype for your business. Just don't expect to transform your basement into some super-productive industrial assembly line.
When discussing his hopes for the technology, however, Mire raised another, quite ambitious idea: printing hydrogels to act as scaffolding for new cells, so that organs might be grown and harvested more easily and, perhaps, save somebody's life.
The team came together after Mire moved to Waterloo with his Canadian wife. He was born in Texas, and did a doctoral chemistry thesis in Australia that included building an extruder. Finkle had studied nanotechnology engineering, and they spent a month working together on their new invention in Mire's basement.
They founded their company last year, launched a Kickstarter campaign this June, and quickly sold 400 units of the Discov3ry Paste Extruder. They believe they might have sold three more in Queens over the weekend.
They aren't the only startup entrepreneurs from their area making a name for themselves in New York lately.
In a Brooklyn coffee shop this weekend, Jesse Guild explained how Blitzen.com went from being an idea he and a friend came up with in Kitchener-Waterloo, to a budding success story with 60 customers including PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Mahindra, NASA, the U.S. Army, and Chevron.
They'd realized, with some frustration, that even high-tech companies used archaic means of collecting data received through online forms.
So they built a program to deal with the problem, and help companies collect the data. Since then, they've built software that makes different data-management systems compatible with each other.
They were selected last year for the prestigious AngelPad mentoring program in New York.
The program included a stint in Silicon Valley — where, Guild said, BlackBerry's home region continues to command great respect, with one prominent investor even comparing the University of Waterloo favourably to Google.
He said the experience has been helpful in overcoming a common problem for Canadian startups: A risk-averse investment climate. He said the more aggressive culture in the U.S. helps young companies raise money, hire engineers and sales staff, and ultimately grow.
"One of the classic challenges Canadian startups face is the lack of early-stage venture capital available," he said. "We need more seed-level VCs willing to lead rounds and write first cheques, and not just wait to follow-on with the U.S. funds."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect spelling for Andrew Finkle's last name.