When he was 11 years old, Matt Woods’ parents told him he couldn’t buy an electric scooter. The “all my friends have one” argument foundered upon egress.
Scooterless and with peer pressure caving in, Woods resorted to his only recourse: Finding a loophole.
“They didn’t say I couldn’t build one,” he said, smiling. “So I took that and I went and tried to build my own — and they didn’t stop me.”
Using motors from junked treadmills, Woods built his own electric bicycle, outfitted with duct tape and furnished inside the first lab of a handful of the world’s finest engineers. “Just messing around” in his garage eventually resulted in makeshift hovercrafts, cars powered by mousetraps and motorized Lego rigs. But the mountain bike-turned-sixth-grader’s dream ride stands out as the project he remembers most.
The small step for kidkind didn’t go far, however. He got as far as the end of his driveway.
“My extension cord pulled out and then I’d have to stop,” Woods said.
Twelve years later, Woods’ dreams extend much further beyond the pavement of his suburban York home. Now the founder and CEO of his own additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, company, Woods talks of Mars, the moon and the stuff of science-fiction novels. But with a few clicks of the mouse, he unravels the “fiction” part almost as easily as the shoelaces on his sneakers. Woods, 23, wears Nikes.
He founded X Material Processing last summer while still a mechanical engineering student at Penn State. By the time he graduated in December, his company was an LLC, had received its first seed grant and competed in “Shark Tank”-style competitions. Its printer, purchased for $53 from the university, was gathering dust, Woods said, an about 15-year-old anachronism in need of a revamp. In six months, he and his team retrofitted the chassis with new motors and electronics. The enclosure that houses the laser and the space for the metal powder, which becomes the printed part, was designed from scratch.
Woods estimates it took less than $10,000 to rebuild the printer. Some can cost more than $1 million.
Making the pitch to judges and clients was almost as hard, he said, as churning out parts. Analyzing its laser, for example, was preferable for the engineer, whose background had hitherto been in a lab rather than a boardroom.
But the lifelong scientist tinkered with the process in the only way he knew how.
“Totally outside of my comfort zone to say the least,” Woods said of trading his lab coat for a suit. “But it’s not that all different from how the machine works. They have their different parts and they react together and you just kind of figure it out as a whole system. Different elements have to be tweaked so it can run efficiently.
“It’s just like the scientific method of coming up with a hypothesis, testing it and reworking it.”
Despite a promising start, there were challenges for the young company. Like most startups, XMP was mainly self-funded. While Woods received support from local entrepreneurship-oriented organizations, embarking on the endeavor carried its own risks. Winning a grant from Lion Launch Pad, a business accelerator program associated the university, and getting free counsel from the Penn State Small Business Development Center were invaluable, Woods said, but much of the onus was still on him and his ability to create, market and sell his product.
For most startups and their founders, the same is true. More than 80 percent of new businesses begin through self-funding, while only 1 percent comes from venture capital, according to Entrepreneur Magazine. Angel investors only flock, if at all, once a beachhead in the market is established. While pitching XMP, Woods had to ensure judges and potential clients that viability wasn’t an issue.
“You’ve got make sure it’s repeatable and reliable for companies,” said Tim Simpson, the co-director of CIMP-3D, a leading resource in additive manufacturing. “They don’t want to have to fiddle with the machine.”
When it comes to survival, the metrics can appear even more daunting. According to Gallup, about half of new companies fail within the first five years, while for those still burdened by student-loan debt, starting a business can become a Sisyphean task. Between 2006 and 2015, 63 percent of graduates left school with some debt from school loans.
Galen Stuski, XMP’s vice president of research and development, came on board after starting his own 3-D printing company and seeing the challenges firsthand.
“I just never quite got it as far...” Stuski, 24, said. “So this was a natural progression for me. It was like ‘I want to do this and I need people and Matt needs people.’ ”
Experts point to the business owners themselves as one of the main indicators of whether or not a startup will succeed. A 2014 Gallup study found that the most promising tend to share traits such as independence and resourcefulness. Keeping an eye on profitability, ostensibly, stood out among the traits.
After moving into incubator space in January at the school’s Innovation Park, Woods and Stuski moved the company a month later down the hall into a smaller room. Previously, they had used it for storage.
When scanning the market for potential buyers, Woods, who interned with rocket design and manufacturing company SpaceX last spring, first thought of the Los Angeles-based company. SpaceX, which has designs on eventually sending people to space, wanted something more refined, Woods said, and so he turned his attention to a smaller scale with hobbyists and maker spaces.
But he’s finding a niche somewhere in between with small manufacturers. They can make use of the low-volume, highly customizable capabilities of metal 3-D printing.
“We realized through testing and talking and working with them that (maker spaces) were not going to be our ideal customer segment,” Woods said. “And the small manufacturers have the budget and the knowledge and understanding of how to work with these things.”
Simpson, who serves as an adviser to Woods’ company, said while 3-D printing has been around for more than 30 years, metal 3-D printing has only taken off in the last five or six. Affordability is increasing as is accuracy. Laser power, for instance, is becoming cheaper. Woods, who is attempting to print different metals together simultaneously, can fill an even greater need, Simpson said, if he succeeds.
“Within a single part you could have different properties,” Simpson said. “For instance you could have a good corrosion resistance on one part, you could have high hardness on another part and good strength everywhere versus now in order to do that you have to assemble different parts made from different materials together to make that single part. Now instead of having multiple parts or multiple processes, you’re bringing it all together at once.”
In April, XMP was one of two competitors awarded $7,000 as part of the school’s IST startup week.
“He’s on the right trajectory,” Simpson added. “I think the possibilities are endless.”
Woods agrees. This time, he’s not bound by an extension cord.
“The funny thing was I was an average student in high school,” Woods said, laughing. “I never was inspired to do much other than just show up to class.”
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy