Startup Factory: Pasadena Incubator's Latest Hatch Is 3-D Printer Maker


Idealab's calling card is simple: It's an 18-year-old incubator with more than 120 company launches under its belt since its founding.

It's the kind of track record that has earned it experience whittling down the important details of starting a tech company to a near science. One of its current startups has been garnering steady buzz in more recent months with an affordable 3-D printer it plans to bring to market next year.

The Pasadena, Calif.-based incubator's New Matter 3-D printer maker closed a $683,804 round Sunday at fundraising site Indiegogo, surpassing its $375,000 goal. It expects to begin a production pilot in February, with deliveries of its $249 printer to follow that same year.

[Related: 15 Firms Willing To Plop Money In Your Company]

New Matter is also a good example of what makes Idealab unique.

It is one of several companies that was created in-house among Idealab staffers. There's about 50 of them, primarily offering support services, such as accounting, legal, design and human resources, affording startups the opportunity to focus solely on their customers and products.

"We've been here since 1996 and started over 120 companies so we've been able to take all those learnings and created a culture where failure is OK. We just want you to do it cheaply and quickly so we can take those learnings and move on to the next thing," said Idealab Director of Business Development Alex Maleki. "We're taking risks to innovate."

The majority of the companies launched out of Idealab has been hatched in-house at its Union Street lab and headquarters in downtown Pasadena, where 12 of its 27 existing portfolio companies currently reside.

Idealab from time to time will get into an early-stage company, such as Sellbrite, a multichannel listing solution for small retailers. Its strategy with those companies is to typically take an equity stake in the business somewhere around the double digits so that the founders still "feel incentivized…and feel like they have skin in the game," Maleki said.

Among the companies currently taking up residence at the lab are business intelligence provider Anomaly and X1, a solution provider that offers eDiscovery and enterprise search aimed at the IT and legal industries. 

Companies that have come out of Idealab range from those in the communications and security sectors to software along with Internet and mobile.

Not every idea is a home run. 

"At any one time, we're working on 15 or so projects, and I would say two to three of those, at most, are going to turn into a company," Maleki said. "If it's a market we want to get in, we ask ourselves, 'Do we have the technology times 10,' because incremental improvements don't really help anyone. And then, 'Do we have the team to execute?' Most ideas are discarded because the market isn't big enough." 

That was the case with the first iteration of New Matter.

Developers at Idealab tooled with the concept of a 3-D printer five years ago with a startup called Desktop Factory, which looked to develop a printer under $5,000, about 20 times the price of a New Matter machine.

"It was an example of just being too early, and the market wasn’t quite ready," Maleki said. "One of the things of being active in an early-stage company is that, oftentimes, you're a bit early."

The IP for Desktop Factory was sold off. Fast-forward five years and companies such as MakerBot and Stratasys have joined the fray, and the reality of everyone eventually having a 3-D printer on their desk seems that much more likely, Maleki said. The time became right to relaunch the idea under New Matter, which was co-founded by President and CTO Steve Schell along with Idealab Co-Founder Bill Gross.

And while New Matter may be getting a lot of buzz, Idealab's startups farm is diversified, each clocking their own gains before they enter the next phase of their development as companies.

The general rule for taking up residence in Pasadena is simple: "Companies can stay [in-house] until they run out of money," Maleki said. "So it's important to understand how far of a runway you have."

PUBLISHED JULY 30, 2014