As 3D printing soars, startup provides the missing ink

Tough enough: The nanocomposite materials produced by Stony Brook-based startup ChemCubed are strong enough for field use -- a critical advantage over other materials offered to those in the additive manufacturing industries.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

With some help from Stony Brook University, a high-tech startup is helping the additive manufacturing industries find their form.

Additive manufacturing, a splashy term for manufacturing via 3D printing, is quickly becoming an everyday thing. Everything from machine parts to deadly weapons to entire life-sized buildings is now being “printed” in composite materials – potentially, a redefinition of basic construction and manufacturing principles as we understand them.

But a science with such vast implications is bound to encounter some hurdles. And when a diverse group of experts boasting long histories in the printing and chemical-science fields detected a whopper of a roadblock on additive manufacturing’s route to global prominence, they pounced.

Chem3 LLC (dba ChemCubed) launched in January 2014, but according to cofounder and Chief Technology Officer Daniel Slep, its history goes back significantly further.

About five years ago, Slep was serving as vice president of Hauppauge-based Hilord Chemical Corp., where he’d toiled for the better part of 25 years – about as long as he knew Phillip Prieur and Brian Weis, the chief executive and vice president, respectively, of Georgia-based Beaver Paper & Graphic Media.

At Hilord Chemical, Slep concentrated on the chemical side of graphics printing, covering electrostatics and polymer reactions and things of that nature. The scientist and adjunct SUNY professor, who earned his PhD in materials science at SBU, had a lot in common with his friends at Beaver Paper, which boasts global distribution operations and a heavy focus on graphics-printing R&D.

Among other things, the friends agreed that “additive manufacturing materials weren’t up to par,” according to Slep – that is, the science’s potential was outpacing its tools, particularly regarding the materials available to manufacturers interested in 3D printing.

“Materials were the soft point for additive manufacturing,” Slep told Innovate LI. “[The industry] would not progress without specialized and advanced materials, and we knew there was an opportunity here to start developing them.

“In Stony Brook, we were in a very good hub in the area of materials development,” he added. “Over a few years of talking, we decided the time was right.”

Daniel Slep: Material gains.

ChemCubed was cofounded by Prieur (CEO), Wies (chief financial officer) and Slep (CTO) and almost immediately accepted into SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (technically, it “launched in a Starbucks,” Slep noted). While the cofounders understood their mission clearly, Job No. 1 was to get a true lay of the land, according to Slep.

“We started out with the concept that we were going to make materials for specific applications,” he said. “We had a few potential customers that we spoke with to see what they lacked and what they needed … and because of my experiences in the printing industry, we were able to develop some of the specific tools that we needed.

“By talking to the customers directly, we were able to learn where off-the-shelf materials just wouldn’t cut it,” Slep added. “We needed to know what was needed first – and that’s what brought us to commercialization, and how we wound up with these two different areas.”

The “two different areas” are ChemCubed’s main verticals – Nano3, a range of branded materials suitable for end-use parts (that is, field work beyond simple prototyping), and ElectroJet, a family of multi-layer/multi-material digital-printing solutions geared specifically toward electronics components.

Chief Marketing Officer Christopher Booher, who brings a quarter-century of packaging and materials marketing experience to ChemCubed, described the two branded solutions as “two sides of the same business.”

“Nano3 is a nanocomposite polymer material based on structural integrity and structural performance,” Booher said. “This line of materials includes both rigid and flexible types of materials, as well as optically performing materials.

“ElectroJet … is again based on nanoparticle materials, these consisting of silver conducting inks and di-electric insulating and building materials,” he added.

The science is as heavy as the lingo – but the bottom line is easily understood, according to the CMO.

“Anybody out there supplying materials to the industry is supplying basic materials that are good for prototyping, but not for end-use applications,” Booher noted. “By focusing on the end-use applications, we’re all about the quality, the strength of the materials and the physical characteristics.

“We’re really focused on making materials that are higher-performing than the standard products available in the marketplace.”

Slep, who also serves on SBU’s External Advisory Board for Chemical Engineering, said the development of those advanced materials – and ChemCube’s progress in general – have been greatly enhanced by the startup’s deep ties to Stony Brook University.

Christopher Booher: Playing the field.

“Being associated with the university has given me access to students and the mechanisms they have here,” he noted. “We’ve gotten many interns from the university who work for credit, and that’s been a big help in terms of financing.”

The startup has also benefitted from federal Small Business Innovation Research programs and other AERTC-based supplemental efforts, bolstering the “hundreds of thousands” in “private funding” it took to get ChemCubed off the ground, Slep noted.

The company – which has five patents pending, covering “everything from process to formulation,” according to Slep – has grown to six full-time staffers, in addition to a large rotation of interns. It continues to grow its customer base largely through word-of-mouth advertising, with some targeted email campaigns thrown in, plus a consistent presence at trade shows and conferences, according to its marketing chief.

“Trade shows are very important,” Booher noted. “Many are focused on the next wave of technologies, and our growth is really about creating awareness of our material solutions, and how we can differentiate the performance of our solutions.”

ChemCubed’s advanced nature, however, does present another unique problem: The next-level company often finds itself waiting for the marketplace to catch up.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Booher said. “We have materials available now for new manufacturing technologies that are still being developed. In some cases, we may be working with electronics companies that are still building out the production capabilities they need to use our materials.”

But that’s a good problem to have, according to Slep, who admits he’d “like to be further along” after four full years in business, “but I think that’s always going to be the case.”

“Actually, I’m pleased with the product lines and being able to become commercialized,” he said. “At any given time, we have 70 or 80 projects working.

“We have so many projects on deck right now,” Slep added. “So, I’m extremely happy with where we are.”

ChemCubed

What’s It? Advanced materials for additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing)

Brought To You By: Old friends (and scientifically savvy businessmen) Daniel Slep, Phillip Prieur and Brian Weis

All In: “Hundreds of thousands,” privately invested, to cover business formation and R&D

Status: Running a half-length ahead of the 3D printing field

 


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