Accelerator versus incubator? Venture versus angel? The startup funding ecosystem is vast and complicated, but even more so when you’re accustomed to funding from an academic perspective. For Rich Ranky and Mark Sivak, two of the three cofounders for 3-Spark, exploring these differences in funding structures and transitioning into the ecosystem has been one of their challenges.
3-Spark is a company founded by Ranky, Sivak, and their previous PhD thesis advisor, Constantinos Mavroidis. The company has created 3D printing hardware that allows sensors and wires to be fabricated into various parts as such parts are being 3D-printed. From an industry context, this technology would save time for engineers and technicians, allowing them to build better, smarter prototypes overnight.
The founders of 3-Spark are all academics. That being so, they’re all well-versed in securing academic research funding. Indeed, the foundation for the idea leading to 3-Spark’s inception – wearable medical devices with embedded sensors – began with a $270,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, three years ago, when Ranky and Sivak were still engineering PhD students at Northeastern. And because the company is commercializing the technology from within Northeastern, they’ve been able to receive in-kind help from the engineering department and the university itself.
“We thought, ‘This is cool, we could go beyond medical.’ We also saw that it was inefficient to inject the sensor after building [the medical wearable frame] – why not do it during the building?” says Ranky.
As they were completing their research last January, Ranky and Sivak began to think of the possibilities of non-medical applications. Luckily for the duo, this new idea for 3D printing technology was soon followed by Ranky’s winning a Catalyst grant at the Research, Innovation and Scholarship Expo (RISE), giving Ranky the funds to buy the material and resources to build the hardware.
“Going from a research environment to a business setting was a big leap, [especially] getting used to the funding challenge. Until after we got the Catalyst grant, we had never even heard of things like ‘accelerators.’”
Now, however, with their product already at hand, the company is learning to adapt in the startup funding ecosystem. “We’re academics, so we’re used to grant writing and we’re more familiar with the long process [associated with them]“; the startup funding game is totally new to them. 3-Spark has done a good job transitioning, though, having recently been named a finalist for the MassChallenge 2013 Accelerator Program. Additionally, the company plans to pursue the fund-seeking cycle in the next few months.
As a final note on their startup funding experience, so far, Ranky adds “there are a lot of hardware-based accelerators out there. I’d love to see more specialized incubators in the future.”