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Carbon’s new CEO discusses local manufacturing, funding and a potential IPO

After six years as head of DuPont, Ellen Kullman joins the fast-growing 3D printing company

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Ellen Kullman Carbon

Last month, Carbon announced its first new CEO in the company’s history. With $260 million worth of investments and a $2.5 billion, it’s a big job. But Carbon’s 500-person headcount is small potatoes compared to Ellen Kullman’s last gig.

For six years, Kullman headed up DuPont, the culmination of a nearly 30-year career at the chemical giant. After leaving the role in 2016, she joined a number of different boards, including Goldman Sachs and Dell. It was, however, a three-year-old Bay Area-based 3D printing company that ultimately drew her interest.

After six years at the helm of the company, co-founder Joe DeSimone stepped aside in November and became Executive Chairman of the Board. His background as a chemist helped birth the startup, while Kullman’s experience leading a Fortune 500 clearly indicate a company looking to take the next steps.

As several substantial funding rounds can attest, there’s clearly massive interest in Carbon’s potential. Over the past few years, the company has formed partnerships with Adidas, Ford, Ridell and a number of other manufacturers. As its newly-minted CEO, Kullman’s job will be following through on those deals and proving the company’s potential as a key player in the future of manufacturing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When was it clear that your time [at DuPont] had kind of run its course?

It was a proxy contest, and we won the proxy contest, but the activists made it clear that he was going to keep coming after the company. I really was the lightning rod, right? It became personal to him that DuPont beat him, right? The only thing that was going to get that settled down, I decided, was me leaving. I’d been there 27 years. I’d run seven years as the CEO. I had a great track record on gross, and on TSR, versus the S&P and things like that.

It was just the right time to exit. Basically the decision came up in the middle of ’15 and you know, I stepped down in late October, I think it was. That was pretty quick for a transition and so that’s why I took a couple of years to figure out what I wanted to do. Actually the first thing I took on was agreed to come on Carbon’s board about four months after I left DuPont.

You’ve been on a number of boards. What attracted you to Carbon, specifically?

Being a mechanical engineer and running a company like DuPont with polymers, I understood injection molding pretty well. I understood how we at DuPont were helping customers try to optimize what they were doing with pure material science. What hit me when I came out here is that digitization, technology, had impacted everything we do. Supply chain, our ERP, our HR systems. Everything around the manufacturing have been touched except, manufacturing itself. Yeah, we might have smarter DCS systems that are running the lines and things like that, but injection molding hasn’t changed for hundreds… the fundamentals. And this has an opportunity to fundamentally change it at a scale and a cost that was relevant. My big thing at DuPont is we could do amazing things with creating new materials, new ecosystems for those materials.

As someone who is familiar with manufacturing and injection molding, you’ve surely known about 3D printing/additive manufacturing for a long time now. To your mind, what is Carbon’s differentiator?

It was at a scale and a cost that was highly differentiated. At least three and a half years ago, I was convinced it would be mid-range manufacturing volumes with the opportunity to go to very large range manufacturing volumes. That was very different than our experience in 3d and additive, which was mostly around prototyping, really optimizing that front end of the design side in order to create the tools you needed to injection mold a great products.

Were you anticipating entering a CEO role again, at some company at some point?

So I’ve had opportunities to interview for CEO. And the first thing I would do is look and see whether it’s a company or an area that I could get really excited about. What I would always say is that, it would have to be compelling for me to decide to go back full time, and it had to fit with my family and where they were, and things like that. I’ve not included myself in opportunities. I’ve said no to opportunities, because it just didn’t, it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time. I think in working as long as I have, in industry, I think I’ve earned the luxury to pick what I do.

How do you see the role of CEO shifting at Carbon?

We have a lot of opportunities in front of us. We’re moving from a stage where we need to employ more kind of standardized processes in order to scale, in order to get the leverage off the investments we’re making. For instance, take the learnings from Adidas and Ridell and move it broader into a full performance and protection category.

Carbon’s headcount is at about 500. How do you see that changing?

I think this is day five.

Sure, but you’ve been on the board for some time obviously. So you know, you knew the trajectory of the company.

I think what we’re doing right now is coming together on making sure we’re all aligned around strategy. First thing you do with any team, you bring them all together and say, “okay, let’s all get this together.” With any change you find that there’s an opportunity for different things to take priority or not priority. We’re working through all that in a much more detailed basis. I’m on a listening tour. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve got a lot more to learn.

I think that what you’re going to find is that our growth in people, our growth in investment, it’s going to be commensurate with our growth of the company. We’re doing a lot of great work. I spent a lot of time in these five days with the R&D and engineering people. A lot of time with Doris Group and the marketing people. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years and I really see an opportunity to make a lot of progress in the next few years.

What are the key priorities for your first year?

I think it’s building out the franchises, in like performance and protection, dental, or in the medical with J&J [Johnson & Johnson], how do we cycle time because of FDA and things like that? But now’s the time that you want to maybe be looking at seeding, where else we go there. So it’s really understanding the market dynamics, our competitive position and advantage, and where we want to deploy that. I see parts of that already and we see other parts that we really need to do some work on to understand, before we kind of launch into those. And so, it’s really putting that together. I spent a lot of time in China. I’ve spent a lot of time outside the United States at DuPont, and I think there’s a… we’ve done great in Europe. I think there’s a bigger opportunity in Asia.

As far as deploying for manufacturing?

Correct. This kind of technology allows you to manufacture where you need it. It’s not like park tourism. You make it and it comes to the United States. This gives people the opportunity to make it in the United States at a cost, and a scale that’s relevant, and you can avoid all the logistics, and all that kind of thing. So you know, in China, for China, in Asia, for Asia, in the U.S. for the U.S. kind of thing.

When we talk about China, we tend to think about it as outsourcing. You’re not speaking specifically about that? You’re speaking more about manufacturing for the 1.3 billion.

Yeah. A lot of injection holding that goes on in China, that goes on in Vietnam, that goes on in Southeast Asia. Transitioning from that, to digital manufacturing, is the focus there.

Do you see the company potentially sort of stepping back on some of those existing partnerships?

I don’t have any notion that we should step back on any of them right now. But I will tell you that we’re all digging in. They’ve done a great job of creating some wonderful partners. And my question is more, how do you leverage the knowledge there to get to higher orders of growth.

It seemed like there were a lot of partnerships coming fast and furious, spending more time nurturing the individual ones.

Yeah. I’m not one to get caught up in the hype. Dara and I will have those discussions about… I’m more of a one that you, when you go public with something, it’s something that’s meaningful, and so I think they’ve done a great job so far. I think there’s a lot of things that are in the hopper, we’ll see. But there’s a lot of building out to do of what we’ve already committed to. In Adidas we’re right in the midst of building that out to much higher volume, and others are the same way. We need to deliver against the commitments we’ve made, which we’re in the process of doing, and then really analyze the new commitments to understand how it can be additive to the company and to our future.

The last time I spoke to [Joe DeSimone] it was around yet another extremely large fundraising round. Will additional rounds be a key part growing the company going forward?

I think that we’re in a great place right now. I don’t see it as being a short term need. I think it’s going to depend on the opportunities that we see going forward. So it’s not one of those things that I’m going to focus on in the next six months, or maybe even the next year. Life can change, things can change, and you’ll be asking me why didn’t you tell me, but right now that’s not on it, because Joe has done a phenomenal job. It’s left us in great shape in order to make the investments we need to make. So it makes my life a little easier.

I assume a lot of people internally and externally are having conversation around IPOing. Is that in the cards?

I think that’s something that we think about, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to really develop and continue to grow and ramp the company. So that’s not a short term. I’ve had questions about, “so we’re IPOing this year?” Obviously when you’re a private company, you always look at all of those options, but it’s not something that’s really front and center at this point.

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