Entrepreneurship's glamorous aura is in the eye of the beholder. Just take a look at Kegan Schouwenburg.
Flat-footed as a child, Schouwenburg hid her clunky podiatrist-made foot supports known as "orthotics" in the back of her closet. For that she carried "an enormous sense of guilt," she says. Fast-forward 20 years, and the now 29-year-old is fixated on taking orthotics out of the closet by using 3-D printing to make them customized, comfortable, and thin enough to fit into a fashionable pair of flats.
Sols are currently sold through more than 300 podiatrists, but an iPad app will make them available directly to consumers this spring. "You take three pictures of your foot; they go into production and are shipped to you in a week," says Schouwenburg. With more than $19 million in venture funding, she's building a new factory just outside of Austin, and expects in excess of $3 million in revenue this year.
Schouwenburg studied industrial design at New York City's Pratt Institute, and then made her way to Los Angeles to work for WET Design, the water-feature design firm best known for creating the fountains at Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. (Five years later, her boss at WET, former Disney "imagineer" Mark Fuller, would become Sols's first investor.)
Eager to put her skills to work at her own company, Schouwenburg moved back to New York in 2007 and, with a partner, founded a product design firm called Design Glut. Its first product, a cheeky-looking cup that holds soft-boiled eggs--dubbed Egg Pants--was picked up by MOMA. And that's when Schouwenburg's eyes were opened to the wonders of 3-D printing. "We prototyped products on 3-D printers and I was so excited by the technology," she says. "Then we'd get the products back from the injection molding company and they weren't as good. It was frustrating."
Bitten by the 3-D-printing bug, she set her sights on Shapeways, a manufacturer and marketplace for 3-D-printed products. "I harassed them until they hired me," she recalls. "I was 26 and I told the CEO, 'I'll take any job you have.'" Six months later, she became Shapeways' director of industrial engineering, responsible for building and running one of the world's largest 3-D-printing factories.
"I always wanted to start a very big company that could change the world in a big way," she says. "I knew I wanted to start a company in 3-D printing and in a market without a lot of innovation." Her flat feet were her inspiration because, well, there are few products as "unsexy" as orthotics.
But it was rough going at first. Faced with limited cash flow and upcoming payroll, she turned to Fuller at WET for help. "We build things that are pretty glamorous," he says. "And my first reaction was that something that goes in the bottom of your shoe is on the other end of the glamour spectrum." But Fuller was sold when Schouwenburg described the 3-D process. He wrote her a $10,000 check and became one of Sols's first shareholders.
Eventually, Sols gained some traction. Podiatrists liked the idea of replacing plaster molding with iPad photos and signed on as partners; to date, the company has shipped more than 2,000 pairs. Sols orthotics are typically "cheaper, better, and what the customer wants," says Schouwenburg, since they fit into a wider variety of shoes than traditional orthotics. "You can't wear them with heels yet, but that day will come." The direct-to-consumer version that's on deck won't incorporate quite as many medical features, but will come with a $125 price tag--about half of what the medical product sells for.
"If Sols is as successful as I believe we can be, we aspire to be the company that's in every shoe," says Schouwenburg. But her 3-D aspirations don't end there. "Today insoles, and tomorrow shoes," she says.