Kegan Schouwenburg had been looking for the product that could help take 3D printing technology to the mainstream, and ended up finding inspiration in an unexpected space: orthotics. Now co-founder and CEO at SOLS, the former Director of Operations and Industrial Engineering at 3D printery Shapeways is working toward solving everyday problems involving foot pain and uncomfortable shoes with custom 3D-printed insoles which promise both a perfect fit and improved performance.
SOLS is also announcing it has closed on $1.75 million in seed funding, in a priced round led by Lux Capital, with participation from RRE, Rothenberg Ventures, Start Garden, Felicis Ventures, Grape Arbor, Silicon Badia, Terawatt Ventures, Funders Guild, Expansion VC, ALM and other angels. The round actually closed in December, says Schouwenburg, but the company didn’t publicize that news until recently.
ALM (Advanced Laser Materials) of Austin, Texas, is SOLS’ strategic investor, and is helping with the development of the materials and the production.
Schouwenburg, whose background is in industrial design, says she’s always loved making things and “seeing physical objects come to life.” She founded her first company, Design Glut, after graduating from Pratt, which saw its mass manufactured products sold into national chains, like Urban Outfitters and Target.
Around the same time as she was hitting issues with expanding production, she came across 3D printing technology. “I thought, my god, 3D printing is the answer to this. It’s this beautiful collision of being able to make things instantaneously at the same cost no matter whether you make one or a thousand, and [being able to] rapidly increase the speed of development and time to market.”
As the sixth employee for Shapeways in the U.S. – a job she pestered them for with repeated phone calls – she first was the team lead for distribution, and later had the opportunity to build a Shapeways factory. While there, she saw all the parts that 3D makers, designers and hobbyists were sending through the Shapeways facility, and began to think about what might be 3D printing’s big mass market hit yet to come.
Her answer – custom-printed insoles – was inspired by the weird, 3D printed shoes that came down the line. They were shoes that nobody, outside of Lady Gaga, could walk in, Schouwenburg recalls with a laugh. ”But what if we made real shoes that people could walk in?,” she found herself thinking. And instead of customizing the outside of shoes, why not customize the inside? “Then, no matter what kind of style you have, the product comes accessible to you,” she says.
The product she and SOLS co-founder Joel Wishkovsky, who previously co-founded Card Gnome, developed are custom-printed antimicrobial nylon insoles. The insoles undergo a robust post-processing where they are polished and coated to be soft to the touch – similar to those rubbery cell phone cases. They come in five different colors, including sky blue, violet, a red/orange, concrete and dark gray, as well as leather.
But the interesting thing about the insoles is how they’re made. Using an application that runs on iOS or Android devices, you “scan” your foot by recording a video, and SOLS then runs a series of processing algorithms on the video to help it create your custom insole. They also combine the data about your foot with other factors, like your weight, information about your lifestyle, and what you’ll be using the insoles for, in order to create the final product.
In the future, the company hopes to partner with shoe manufacturers who could offer fit-to-shoe insoles as an option when you “build” your shoe order online, as well as with retailers who could offer foot scanning in stores, and, of course, with consumers who just want their own premium product.
But the company is first targeting the medical market. Its beta program, launching in a couple of weeks, will start with fifteen doctors who are helping SOLS test, tweak and fine tune the product. These insoles will cost patients around $300-500, but the plan is to bring that number down to around $100 when SOLS launches its consumer-facing options, likely next year.
In 2014, the focus is instead on rolling out the service to the doctors, starting in New York, where SOLS is located, then expanding on a city-by-city basis to other major metro regions, including L.A., San Francisco, Miami and Chicago.
Schouwenburg believes the product could eventually reach a variety of consumers, ranging from women looking for more comfort from their heels, for example, to athletes looking for increased performance (early tests indicate the insoles may be outperforming current athletic shoes on energy return), to anyone who wants improved health and reduced pain.
“It’s 2014. The idea that we buy the shoes that don’t fit is ridiculous,” says Schouwenburg. “As for 3D printing, it shouldn’t be a replacement production method,” she adds. “There has to be other reasons for choosing it. And with products that fit the body…you suddenly have this inherent need for customization.”