3-D printing is currently one of the ‘hottest’ areas of technology. In such a fast-moving and highly competitive market, making sure that your inventions are properly protected is essential to give investors confidence that you can commercialise them successfully, as Structo’s experience demonstrates.
Technical breakthroughs that offer the promise of rapid scale-up are just what savvy investors look for—provided they can have confidence that these breakthroughs are not simply going to be copied immediately by competitors with far larger resources.
Structo’s novel approach to 3-D printing meets two key investment criteria: it has a clearly identified and addressable initial market, and it offers the potential to address many more applications in future. However, the scale of these opportunities has made it all the more important to ensure that the company’s technology is appropriately protected to raise the required funding.
Focusing on the core market opportunity
Structo’s four founders were studying together at NUS when they came up with a new technology for three-dimensional (3-D) printing, now known as MSLA—Mask Stereolithography. Some years later, their novel idea has become a business supplying machines to a range of dental labs.
Structo’s MSLA system uses a large array of light sources which operate in conjunction with a digital mask. The resin used is photocurable, so wherever the mask allows light to pass through, a layer of material gets deposited. This technology allows much greater output speed and volume than conventional 3-D printers, which in the case of Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3D printers typically rely on a single three-axis nozzle that jets material. Even when compared with competitors such as those using Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Projection (DLP) technologies, which both utilise fundamentally the same concept of light to selectively cure photosensitive resin, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Devansh Sharma is confident that
"Our customers can get more throughput per hour than any other machine on the market."
Current customers for Structo’s MSLA machines are chiefly dental laboratories, who use them to produce a range of dental models, trays and surgical guides. While the technology has applicability in many more sectors, Devansh explains the need for focus:
"3-D printing is a very new industry compared with other manufacturing processes, so there is a lot of room to grow. However, dental is a big enough market, and we wanted to put all our efforts into it so that we could become the dental 3-D printing company."
Investing in IP at an early stage
Structo’s business is built on innovations protected primarily by patents, and the company is clear about the pivotal role these have played in helping it through the multiple funding rounds required to support its international growth ambitions.
Even before forming the company, the founders filed a provisional patent covering its technology, realising that it had potential to speed up the entire 3-D printing process. This original invention remains core to the company’s products, but there have been multiple rounds of refinement, also covered by further IP applications. As Devansh explains,
"R&D has always been one of our main areas of expenditure, so it’s never been difficult for us to justify protecting it. It’s how we can sustain ourselves in the marketplace and continue to innovate."
Devansh is clear that Structo’s patents have played an important role in helping the company obtain the finance it needs to grow.
"We knew we needed to make sure that the hardware aspect was secured so that we could build a company and a market and win customers based on it. When we did go for funding to get started, it was also something that the investors looked for, because in the current market, it’s one of the key ways for a hardware company to be able to grow. It was why we got funding in the first place."
Devansh expands on this process
"Evaluating IP is one of the crucial tasks that investors have to do as part of their due diligence. It is one of only a few items they really go through when evaluating the potential that the company offers. If you want to expand and be a global company, your investors will be looking at your market strategy and will be interested in knowing whether you have protection in those markets."
As well as supplying machines, Structo provides the photopolymeric resins needed to make them operate. As Devansh explains, a lot of work goes into developing materials to work specifically with the machine, each with different chemical and mechanical properties that are suited for particular applications. These products and their associated income streams also require IP protection, and Structo has a thorough patenting strategy in place for such. In addition, brand protection has also become increasingly important to the business.
"When we started off, we concentrated primarily on patent. Once we started trading, we identified that having trade marks on the products we offer was also important."
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