Top down investing can be hard. It’s one thing to identify a theme to that may dominate business in the years to come, quite another to figure out which companies will reap the anticipated reward.
3D printing is a process that has been around for years, but has only just captured the imagination of the investment community, which is rife with those looking to cash in on a technology that will almost certainly change many aspects of our everyday life.
Recently listed Tinkerine Studios (TSXV:TTD) is Canada’s first pure-play 3D printing stock, and the company’s pedigree suggests it could emerge from the inevitable pack of “me too” plays to make a serious run in the space. Tinkerine’s Ditto Plus 3D printer has aready won praise from influential Make: magazine who recently awarded it “Surprise Hit” and “Best Value” in an issue dedicated to 3D printing.
Cantech Letter sat down with co-founder and CEO Eugene Suyu, CFO Martin Burian, and VP of Market Direction Todd Blatt to talk about what’s next for the company.
Eugene, can you tell us a bit about how Tinkerine Studios came about?
The idea of owning a 3D printer started in the last semester of my university year at SFU. Having used a 3D printer in the design faculty I was in, it made me realize I just had to get one. In the summer of 2011, I had my hands on an open source 3D printer kit. Being a user experience designer, this was really exciting for me. However, the process of setting up, assembling, and printing fell short of my expectations. That was really when the idea of Tinkerine sparked. I knew I had the skills to deliver a better experience in both the process of building and owning a 3D printer on the hardware side. I also knew there were other areas of the 3D printer landscape that needed attention as well -mostly in the software aspects. With the team in place, and our first product almost ready in early January 2012, we decided to dive fully into this and start to get everything off the ground.
Todd, you were a significant part of the marketing team at Makerbot and helped launch their first store in New York. Todd, What did you see in Tinkerine that made you want to back Eugene and the other founder’s vision?
I first saw the Ditto and Litto printers at the 2013 San Mateo Maker Faire. I took the opportunity to browse around on set-up day and stopped by the Tinkerine booth. Their machines looked solid, and they had large prints that were good quality. A former co-worker of mine at Makerbot had designed a large contraption which they had 3D printed and had assembled and on display at their table. I’d never seen anyone else attempt that particular build because it was so large and such a challenging print. It caught my attention because it was one of the designs that MakerBot liked to feature. I saw Tinkerine as a company with a solid competitive product, and an interesting and unique look. When I was introduced to the team a few months later, I decided I would join the team and help the world learn about the great machines that we have available.
Todd, you were recently a speaker at “Inside 3D” in New York and gave several interviews to The Wall Street Journal and other major business press, what would you say the most commonly asked questions are amongst consumers and investors currently regarding 3D Printing ?
Time and time again, I hear the questions, ‘Yea it’s cool, but what can you do with it?’ or ‘What kind of people actually use this? People said that about Twitter, too (laughs). A 3D printer is a tool. You can print intricate components, and then assemble them. You can add electronics, hardware, screws etc to make complex objects. Architects use it for creating models, engineers use it to develop and test projects. Industrial designers use it to conceptualize and refine products. Jewelers use it to make casting molds. Students use it for science class, art class, and homework assignments. Once you realize there are so many more things you can do with a printed part, the doors are really open wide.
Eugene, how long do you think it will be before consumers start printing replacement cupboard handles or coffee maker parts economically and at home?
It is happening now; average users that I have met have started to print bits and pieces for replacement parts in their everyday lives. Pieces ranging from broken parts in their cars, to oven knobs and useful objects are being printed. While plastic is limiting to some degree, it also puts people in a position to innovate and come up with useful solutions to their replacement problems.
You mentioned education is your major focus. Can you tell us how this approach differs from other players in the market?
The focus on education is to really provide a base line understanding for both the teachers and the students on how to utilize a 3D printer. By providing the teachers with a teaching curriculum for 3D printing, it helps guide the teachers to educate the students. Teachers can use 3D printing to teach from various aspects of disciplines ranging from computer science, math, design, or even engineering. Once the students are exposed to 3D printing, they can be imaginative and explore the capabilities of 3D printing in depth.
It seems like there are a lot of “me too” players in the space right now. What are the hurdles for new companies coming into the space?
There are quite a few “me too” players out there gathering open source parts and delivering 3D printers. The hurdles to success are in the details; What about quality control? Product warranties? Easy to use software to run the machine? What about customer service? What about the business fundamentals like production rate, and market penetration and distribution? There is definitely going to be some consolidation in the 3D printer market, and a well-run and well-capitalized company like Tinkerine is going to emerge on top.
The 3D Printing industry is trying to balance performance with pricing, how does this play in to Tinkerine’s favour if at all?
We have always felt that high performance should not be tied closely with high pricing, but there needed to be a balance. These are tools that need to hold high tolerances, but being able to print the tolerance and resolution should be a norm and not a premium people have to pay for, so all Ditto and Litto units were designed with that concept in mind.
What areas will Tinkerine be investing in outside of driving online curriculum and education?
Aside from Tinkerine U, our educational initiatives, we will be investing in the development of software that will enhance and simplify the 3D printing experience for an average person. We want people to be able to dream, design, and then 3D print with as little friction as possible. We’re investing in simplifying the hardware and software to get to a ‘Press-1- button’ experience where the hardware and software interaction just works. We’re also investing in further developing the types of printable materials. These “next gen” materials will expand the possibilities of what you can print and bring forth characteristics that normal filament does not offer.
Martin, you have been a capital markets guy for most of your career. What was the pull of Tinkerine that made you switch sides?
I’ve always loved the process of building companies and in mid-2013 I got introduced to Tinkerine. I had been almost 20 years in investment banking, so the opportunity to join a high growth company like Tinkerine, in a topical and promising sector, was just too alluring. Being able to partner with bright young entrepreneurs and technical guys and pair that with my finance and capital raising background has been tremendously fun!
Martin, can you tell us about the plan to make money? How will Tinkerine generate revenue and how much margin do you expect that topline to have?
Tinkerine has a several pronged business plan. It’s not just about selling hardware, but also the software and an ecosystem of support and 3D blueprint availability to create happy users. We’ve also have specific plans for online support and business penetration into the education sector which we will roll out in the coming months. We haven’t released guidance on expected sales growth, but safe to say the release of our new DittoPro printer will change our top line substantially over the coming 10 to 24 months. Our historical margins have been very high, more reminiscent of software margins than hardware. We have built enough room into our pricing to insert a distributor margin and still deliver respectable gross margins.
Eugene, your Ditto+ 3D printer was named “Surprise Hit” and runner up for “Best Value” and “Best Documentation” by the influential hobbyist Make Magazine this past year. Are you happy with the way the product has been received so far?
We are proud of our achievements to date with not just the shout out by Make Magazine, but also from all the customer feedback that has provided insight to how our products are being used. To be able to get two award winning printers on the market under budget and in a short time frame while gaining attention from some key influencers in the 3D printer space has really backed our underlying goals in all the products we develop.
Eugene, what does Tinkerine hope to accomplish over the next 12-18 months, corporately?
As a high tech growth business, we want to be everywhere our competitors are and aren’t. One of this these areas includes education, of students, teachers, and the average person the ability to dream with 3D printers – something I am deeply passionate about. With this, we are working on several major education initiatives that we plan to announce over the next few months to really give it the push it needs to. Todd, our VP of Market Direction has been out creating the necessary buzz for our branding initiative with the US social media so this will continue to strengthen the awareness of our business and products as we launch our next 3D printer, the DittoPro. Specifically from a product perspective, we will continue to make customer and user experience a central focus, while we build out our 3D Printer ecosystem, led by Tinkerine U, our education initiative. We believe we have the right team in place to penetrate and utilize strategic distribution channels both in North America and other key parts of the world, which will drive sales and market awareness. As the CEO, I want to ensure we are deriving value from our sales efforts, key hires, organic growth, technology development and M&A goals. Our shareholders should expect to see strong growth in the business, and support in the way of news flow, which will include regular corporate updates, newsletters, and media interviews with management and the team.