The desktop blacksmith? A123 Systems veterans team up for printer that can make metal parts

Desktop Metal co-founder and CEO Ric Fulop.
Desktop Metal co-founder and CEO Ric Fulop.

Out raising an initial round of venture capital this month is a Cambridge startup from some big names: Ric Fulop and Yet-Ming Chiang, co-founders of the battery company A123 Systems, and Chris Schuh, head of the Department of Materials Science at MIT.

The startup, Desktop Metal, is so new that it doesn’t yet have a website or a working prototype. But the objective is to build a 3-D printer that can crank out parts in a range of high-performance metals — think aluminum and titanium — and be quiet and clean enough to sit on a designer’s desktop. [Update: On Oct. 27th, the company said it had raised $14 million from a group of investors including NEA, Kleiner Perkins, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, and Bolt.]

Fulop is leaving behind his role as a full-time venture capitalist at North Bridge Venture Partners of Waltham to focus on Desktop Metal; he says the decision was one he made in the last month or so, but that he’ll remain on the boards of companies he invested in at North Bridge.

“I would’ve probably funded this idea as a VC,” he says. “I got really excited about it, and wanted to do it. The concept is to build the first office-friendly metal 3-D printer, and we’re assembling a team that can build it.” While at North Bridge, Fulop invested in one 3-D printing business, MarkForged of Somerville, whose printers focus on carbon fiber parts. He also invested in the computer-aided design startup Onshape, based in Cambridge. (I covered Onshape back in March.)

Fulop says it’s too early to talk about delivery dates or pricing of the printer, and that the startup is still hiring its engineering team. “We’re in the early, early days of 3-D printing,” he says. “If you think of aviation, we’re at the World War I stage, when planes were made of canvas and wood. This is an industry with a very long arc.” But it’s also an industry where other startups are racing to bring down the price and accessibility of making metal components — like MatterFab, based in San Francisco.

In July, the analyst firm IDTechEx reported that sales of metal 3-D printers were growing at 48 percent annually. But most of today’s printers that can make metal parts, rather than simply molds that can be used to cast metal parts, cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Among the early adopters of metal 3-D printers, the IDTechEx report found, were aerospace engineers, jewelers, and dentists making implants and bridges.

Fulop originally joined North Bridge Venture Partners in 2010. The Globe wrote about the rise and fall of A123 Systems in 2012; I covered another startup that MIT prof Yet-Ming Chiang is involved with, 24M Technologies, in June.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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