Kegan Schouwenburg has two things she is hoping will be the secret of her success: flat feet and an intimate knowledge of 3D printing. She's putting them, along with a newly acquired $1.75 million in seed money, behind her startup company, SOLS, which makes 3D printed orthotic shoe inserts.
"We're building an infrastructure that will make it possible for custom mass production which is really exciting to me," said Schouwenburg.
As the person who originally assembled the Shapeways factory, she has experience.
"I want to be one of the people who drives (the 3D printing market) into the consumer sector," Schouwenburg said. "(Shapeways) is looking at custom niche products, while I am looking for consumer mass production."
So when she was trying to think of a product with which to do that, orthotics made sense to her. The generative lattice structure of the orthotics' interior plays perfectly to 3D printing's strengths.
"It feels like really small trampolines underneath your feet," Schouwenburg said.
It's about more than just feeling good though. "(SOLS is) the first company to create an orthotic that moves with the foot," Dr. Emily Splichal said. "Having a dynamic structure for foot function, for movement, for preventing injury, is critical because with every step that we take, we are taking in impact forces that that your body must dynamically absorb and then recoil from with every step."
"If you have a static structure in your shoe, you're not absorbing those impact forces," she continued. "You're really not moving efficiently through each step, which means you're going to get injured and you're not going to be moving as efficiently as possible."
Schouwenburg was looking for a product that met three core criteria: it needed to have an inherent need for customization, it needed to use 3D printing technology to improve the manufacturing process, and it needed to have a serviceable cost structure.
The beta test of the orthotics starts next week. Doctors throughout the American Northeast will be given scanners to use on their patients' feet. The information will be sent to SOLS and customized orthotics will be 3D printed in the factory in Texas.
The goal is to have the inserts in your shoes within two weeks after foot scanning. Schouwenburg hopes to forego the need for a visit to the doctor's office to get a pair of SOLS once the product goes on sale in April. She is counting on someone eventually developing an app that will turn smartphones into scanners.
The fashionable inserts are made from a long-lasting nylon material, will come in a choice of colors and will be treated with an antimicrobial nano-protect top coat to repel odor and sweat.
The price will be based on the cost of traditional orthotic inserts in various regions of the country.
"Think about it, we all get up every day," Schouwenburg said. "We all put on shoes … what's strange to me is that we accept the fact that they are not going to fit so well, or maybe they will hurt, or that we can only wear them so long before we get a blister …"
Schouwenburg understands; she really does have flat feet.
"Terrible," she said with a laugh. "I grew up with very flat feet. I grew up wearing orthotics which is part of why I chose (to produce) them."