My Saga of Using 3D Printing as a Prototyping Method
When I started developing my first product, my assumptions about 3D printing cost me time and money, finite resources for any entrepreneur. Taking my design from a napkin to a functioning prototype was the goal, but as a newbie, I had to learn a few things about utilizing 3D printing as a method to prototype.
Do not buy a 3D printer without the advice of an expert and a general understanding of the 3D printing process. As you probably know, although 3D printers have become more commonplace and affordable, they can be expensive and technically complex. I spent about $30k on a large-scale 3D printer - a seven-foot-tall monster- that required considerable technical competence to use and maintain. Everyone I hired to work with the machine experienced so much technical difficulty that, at one point, I thought the project was doomed to failure. Though the printer produced prototypes, they were not water-tight, an essential feature for my product. No amount of professional coding or tinkering could solve it and at one point I resorted to dipping the prints in liquid rubber to make them water-tight. I wasn’t going to be defeated, so I gathered more information and replaced the unnecessary giant with seven smaller Ender 3 Pros, at a fraction of the cost. They are easy to use and can manufacture water-tight prototypes with ease. Success!
Who Will Design, Code, and 3D Print?
Unlike writing, numbers have never been an academic strength. Inventors who do not possess math or mechanical skills will have a steeper learning curve transforming a design concept into a 3D printable g-code. I relied on my ability to strategically plan and win competitive grants to hire the right people for the job. In between grant funding, however, I felt powerless. It would have benefited me to have a basic understanding of computer automated design or CAD software. I still struggle, but have learned a lot. Beginner, browser-based CAD software, such as TinkerCAD has been very useful for the GSS Group enabling us to quickly modify and print our design for internal tests.
3D printing is an effective method to produce prototypes and test new design ideas. But when you start, buy a small, inexpensive 3D printer with plenty of reviews and lots of online resources. Then, download TinkerCAD and watch their high-quality training videos. For inventors with a dream, but a weakness in math, don’t give up. Connect with your local university or state agencies to identify programs for first-time entrepreneurs. Though my experiences are limited to what Arkansas provides, I have had significant success with many state programs. Ask for help to solve specific problems by hiring qualifies consultants and contractors. Talk to people who are doing what you need to be done (prepare and win a grant, prepare a patent, learn to manufacture a product, etc.).
Victory Among Chaos
“Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.” -Abigail Adams
Since I started the hydroponic tower project in 2017 with the SBIR Phase I award, there have been many challenges. I believe that this is mainly due to my inexperience in developing a new product. I am not an engineer, artist, accountant, or scientist – all skills that would be helpful to me as an entrepreneur. I had an idea what would be required to develop a new product, and I am perseverant. One of the biggest challenges that I have been facing is the lack of adequate research greenhouse space. During Phase I, I was able to rent space from a small college in Harrison, Arkansas. There, I shared space with the professors doing research and students participating in class projects. It worked, but there were issues. The facility needed maintenance, no one knew how to use the control system, and soilless methods were mixed with soil methods that resulted in pest and disease outbreaks in more sensitive seasons (winter and summer). I was not in a situation to complain. There was nowhere else to go, so I was grateful for the ability to use the space as it was. It was a struggle to get accurate specimen data from the hydroponic tower prototype because I was constantly battling the environment and disease. Overall, I did manage to collect enough data to prove my concept and secure Phase II funding.
SBIR Phase II does not allow funds to be spent on purchasing facilities of any kind. I was awarded $650,000 for which I am most grateful but I could not spend any of it on the one thing I needed most. In response, I did what I have always done, I kept going and looking for other ways to solve this problem. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission offers an SBIR Matching Grant of up to $100,000 for Phase II awardees. In October 2020, I applied but was denied. My heart broke. That was my shot. Farmers are extremely risk-averse customers. If I could not show them that my HydroFresh™ Hydroponic Tower System worked and that it could co-exist with their current hydroponic system, they would never adopt it. The news was devastating - I failed.
This part is where my faith comes in, a miracle from God. The AEDC emailed me and gave me a second chance! In addition, they willingly met with me, asked specific questions and gave me guidance on how to reapply with more success. I was so grateful. The second application was due in late January. I worked really hard to answer their questions, re-created the power-point, and submitted it. It was the middle of March and I still had not heard any word of AEDC SBIR Matching Grant winners. It was one of my worst weeks. Monday, my aunt who was fighting cancer took a turn for the worst and was in a coma at the hospital. Tuesday, my project manager, who has never complained since she started, came in with tears pouring down her face because she unexpectedly had to put her dog of ten years down the night before. Wednesday, a good friend, and my content developer got emitted to the hospital for mental illness. Thursday, my brother was in the hospital with a broken back from a car crash the night before. Friday, I made a quick decision to drive to Jonesboro Arkansas hours away to see my mother after learning that she had multiple cysts on her liver and still had not seen a specialist. My heart and my head were heavy with grief and worry.
I kept asking myself, “When will the AEDC reach out?” I hoped for a win but expected a rejection. I thought about my competitors. They were high-tech scientists with many employees and support from agencies like the Department of Defense and the National Institution of Health. They were going to bring in high-paying jobs and tech innovation to Arkansas. My HydroFresh™ Hydroponic Tower System is an innovative technology, but it’s not like circuit boards or software. Eating lettuce from my system may help prevent cancer but it’s not going to cure it or send rockets to space. Because that week was filled with such chaos, and I did not get much work done, I made a vow of silence to myself. I vowed that the next week I would just focus on work and not talk about the world or take any personal phone calls. After a very productive Monday, I was feeling satisfied with my vow and with the accomplishments that day. As I was walking out the door, my project manager Kelsey was checking her emails and let out a yelp. “Is this? What is this? Is this? Yes! Danielle, we won!”
My name is Danielle Dozier. Like many first-time entrepreneurs, I have no formal training in entrepreneurship – but here I am, doing all sorts of things – that I never imagined. It started in college with a desire to test if hydroponic production methods would be accepted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My colleagues and I built a small-scale greenhouse in my colleague’s family compound and used PVC and a heat gun to create a Do-It-Yourself hydroponic tower. We grew lettuce plants and attempted to gain market acceptance. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. Sourcing materials was difficult, expensive, and the native language translated hydroponics to “chemical plants.” In short, the project failed and I went back to college.
After graduating with a degree in Horticulture from the University of Arkansas, I started interning for a local hydroponic farm. I told the owners about my Ethiopia project in passing, but they got excited, “Can you build these vertical towers for us? We are running out of production space and would love to put our North side-wall to work.” Together we built about 20 or more of these systems, slapped them onto the wall, and watched them grow. It worked, but it was not perfect. The PVC towers leaked, splashed, and became brittle over time. This internship, though fun, was unpaid, so I had to find a job. Eight months later, I was hired by a private investor to build a tomato farm in Texarkana TX.
Don’t get lost here. The concept of a vertical tower design that helped hydroponic farmers use existing “dead-space” was starting to consume me. Why had this not been done before? Why are hydroponic systems so competitive that farmers have to choose only one to maximize their space? Why is it so difficult to find a hydroponic system at an affordable cost? While managing the tomato farm project in Texas, I started to visit the local universities and ask questions. I cannot draw a stick figure, so I paid an architect student to draft my first concept of what this “ideal-dead-space-using-tower” would look like.
On one of the university visits, I learned about the Small Business Innovative Research or SBIR competitive grant program. The professor at Texas A&M mentioned that the Small Business and Technology Development Centers helped with preparing such grants. After a phone call with Rebecca Todd at the SBTDC office in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was encouraged to try even though I had never written a grant. This decision changed my life. Though the success rate is 15%, with the help of the ASBTDC, I won. The USDA SBIR Phase I competitive grant of $100,000 was awarded to someone who could not even draw a stick-figure.
That award was given in 2017. So much has happened since then, and I want to share my story with those who feel unqualified to try something new. If you have an idea but question your ability to bring it to life, it is ok. There are people and resources that will help you get to the next step.
Next quarter I will share more about the Phase I project and how my inexperience resulted in a costly mistake that almost railroaded the project to near failure.