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An Interview with Sky Van Iderstine, Formy

Our initial research into activities of colleges and universities related to 3D printing yielded many interesting stories and projects. Since that time, we have continued to look more deeply into what colleges and universities are doing and tried to highlight those individuals who are embracing entrepreneurship in a variety of ways. In this most recent segment in our Expert Interviews series we connected with Mr. Sky Van Iderstine who has already been part of two start-up companies despite only graduating this year from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. Among his accolades is the title of Undergraduate Innovator of the Year for 2015 at his alma mater as well as winning first place at the Super Demo (U. Va., April 2015) and first place at the Innovation Competition at VT in December 2014. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) When, how, and why did you come up with the idea for Formy?
Formy was started by me as an independent study project with Professor Fenske in the industrial design department last September. I envisioned a device that utilizes the jamming phase transition in granular materials to create a reusable form that can be 3D scanned (watch demo here). In essence, you could digitally capture many impressions in series with one device. I call it a phase-cycling form because it can cycle between moldable and rigid states as needed to capture multiple impressions.

Within a month of starting the project, I received a small grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) which funded the creation of the original prototype. By the end of the semester, I built a functional prototype and worked with four other students in Dr. William's Additive Manufacturing class to 3D scan the device, modify the CAD model to be a bike grip, and 3D print it in a flexible material. We ended up making the most comfortable bike grip available.

In December, we won the Innovation Competition hosted by the Center for Innovation-based Manufacturing. In April, we won Super Demo, a business pitch competition at UVA, and Recess, a business pitch competition at Virginia Tech. The funding we received from these competitions has fully funded all research and development. Furthermore, all start up costs will be funded by Kickstarter backers. Its rather unique that a technology company can start with no investment capital whatsoever.

By the spring semester, I had decided that I wanted to attempt to market the product I created. I participated in the Startup Class that teaches students how to identify and solve problems by applying revenue generating models. The class began with everyone presenting their ideas for how to solve a problem, then teams organically form around these ideas. I gained three more team members who helped do customer research and develop the business model. By the end of the Spring semester, we completed the design and fabrication of the phase-cycling form (it took about four major design iterations). Now we're using the device to create all of the grip sizes, we're performing product testing, and we’re developing the Kickstarter campaign.

2) Is there any significance behind the name, "Formy"?
The name Formy is derived from two sources; the phase-cycling form which enables our product to exist and the pronunciation of Formy ("for me") is well suited to such a personalized product.

3) Who are the members of the Formy team and their roles/backgrounds?
The Formy team is currently me and Christina Wise, a VT computer engineering grad. In the Fall, I has classmates in additive manufacturing help with 3D printing. In the spring, I had classmates in the Startup Class help with the business model. Now I have Christina helping with social media and marketing before we launch our Kickstarter campaign in August. The skills necessary to develop Formy have changed through the various stages of development and will change again once the Kickstarter campaign is completed.

4) What from your background in mechanical engineering helped you in creating the product? Are there particular classes from your undergraduate coursework that were especially beneficial?
A general understanding of physics was helpful; that’s covered in many courses from Physics I to Mechanical Design. ME Lab I and II showed me how to tie math, science, technology, and design into a cohesive report that allowed me to professionally communicate the results of my work. Also, the additive manufacturing class I took concurrently with developing the phase-cycling form was essential for understanding the best ways to use additive manufacture for our specific needs.

Beyond the ME curriculum, Industrial Design Summer Studio was immensely helpful in giving me hands on experience and confidence in the process of ideation and product development. I also run a sole proprietorship called Strapping Fellow that has given me a lot of experience with running a small business.

In fact, the business model for Formy is essentially the same as that for Strapping Fellow (both market highly customizable products that are sold online and manufactured on-demand). The critical difference is that Formy is scalable because it has a much larger market and the products are made by robots rather than by hand.

5) Your website indicates that Formy Bike will launch in August, at this point, how universal can the designs be? That is, can you make a mold to fit on any bike (even a kid's bike?)
Formy offers grips for all hand sizes from the first percentile female to the ninety ninth percentile male. They only work on bikes with straight handle bars bars, which is the most common type.

6) What price point at you looking at as a start? What colors are your grips available in currently?
Formy Bike grips will retail for $80, but will be available on Kickstarter for $65 for early backers and $75 for everyone else.

7) Without revealing too much, can you talk a little bit about how a Formy grip is manufactured? What type of printer and printing process are you using?
Formy grips are 3D printed on an extrusion printer using a thermoplastic elastomer (a plastic with the properties of rubber). Click here for a video.

8) What will a successful Kickstarter campaign enable you to do?
Our Kickstarter campaign will allow us to buy 3D printers and filament as well as upgrade our website to a storefront for sales after Kickstarter.

9) After you get Formy Bike up and running, what other avenues/industries (in general) are you hoping to expand into?
Medical applications are interesting. People with a low grip strength, such as the elderly and those with arthritis, could benefit from grips that are perfectly shaped to their hand. These could be installed on walkers and other load-bearing hand-operated devices. Garden tools, professional cutlery, and even ATVs and dirt bikes are other possibilities.

10) Based on your success at Virginia Tech, what advise would you give to other students interested in designing their own products (even before they get to a college/university)? What do you think are the necessary tools universities and colleges can provide to enable this type of innovation?
The hardest part of product development is often identifying a problem that you can solve. The key is to bombard yourself with new stimuli. Start new hobbies, learn new things, be spontaneous, be curious, be active, and never be satisfied with the status quo. This will expose you to problems. Problems are everywhere and identifying them is just a numbers game for those who are naturally inclined to problem solve.

Also, stay up to date with all the latest technology; this will provide you with potential solutions. When you have many problems identified and many possible solutions, then you have a better chance of having good ideas. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I started Strapping Fellow less than a year after I got interested in watches (problem identified) and less than a month after I did leatherwork for the first time (potential solution). I started Formy less than two years after I got into biking (problem identified) and less than 6 months after I 3D printed something for the first time (potential solution). I think for this to work though, you have to have a sense of fearlessness and confidence when problem solving.

The perspective expressed in this video is what gives me the confidence and motivation to pursue solutions to problems I encounter. Then, of course, technical ability is required for most problem solving. My education in engineering and design was ideal for doing product development because it covered every step of the product development process from problem identification to customer discovery to ideation to concept selection to experimentation to prototyping to manufacturing to marketing to finance. Neither mechanical engineering, nor industrial design covers all of those topics by themselves, yet they?re all essential in bringing an idea to market.

In summary, everyone can have good ideas, but only some have the courage to pursue them and even fewer have the ability to execute them. If you immerse yourself in new stimuli, you’ll have good ideas. If you act with confidence, you’ll have the courage to pursue them. And if you get the right education, you’ll have the ability to execute them. If you can do all three, you’ll achieve success in product development. With that being said, I have no idea what I’m doing, so take all of that with a grain of salt.

Resources provided by the university and community were essential in developing Formy. Everything from competition winnings that funded development to receiving guidance from experienced faculty and community members to using workspace at NuSpark (a place for startups in Blacksburg).