Well before the supply chain shocks started by the pandemic and continuing today, getting raw materials and essential parts from the source to the manufacturers who need them has often been a logistical nightmare – expensive and with long lead times. Cora Leibig was convinced there had to be a way to unsnarl the supply chain and shake up the manufacturing process. With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and two decades of experience in the materials industry, Cora came up with a breakthrough technology described as a game-changer for the 3D printing and additive manufacturing ecosystem. The Chromatic 3D process uses proprietary, durable, flexible, industrial-quality 3D printing materials to bring 3D printing into the production environment and just-in-time manufacturing, something traditional 3D printing materials struggle to do. Cora recently spoke with Karen Gould of Golden Seeds about the inspiration behind Chromatic 3D Materials and the lessons she’s learned, which can help other entrepreneurs starting out.
GS: What was the seed of an idea that grew into what your company is today?
CL: I’ve been pondering the inefficiencies of the supply chain for raw materials for my entire career. In the chemical industry, a lot of materials are produced at only a few places in the world, requiring an incredible infrastructure to get them to where they need to be. I thought there had to be a way to bring materials closer to the manufacturers that use them.
Years ago, I had the idea of designing something that would go on the back of a truck so you could do just-in-time supply wherever it’s needed, but it never went anywhere. Then, at one of my kid’s debate tournaments, I heard a student talk about 3D printing advances. My mind started racing. I realized this could bring production to a point where material selection and parts manufacturing could be localized, solving supply chain problems and allowing for customization. I learned more about 3D printing, identified the gaps with current technology and figured out how I could solve the gaps using reactive chemistry. In 2016, I founded Chromatic 3D Materials. My experience with large companies like Dow Chemical and with startups gave me a good view of how to build a small business with big dreams that can be realized.
By the way, that kid won the debate tournament and I offered him a job, but it didn’t end up working out.
GS: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
CL: Until now, the supply chain mess has really slowed productivity and rectifying shortages is a screaming need that people are willing to pay for. We’re addressing supply chain problems by providing the ability to produce and manufacture just-in-time. That’s something all 3D printing companies aspire to, but oftentimes they get stuck producing only prototypes because the materials aren’t strong enough. Our materials are durable enough to be production-grade. We use our proprietary FlexTuneTM 3D Printed Polyurethanes, rubber elastomers that are high performance yet still flexible. This enables us to provide just-in-time production and rapid design configuration with production-grade materials that are suitable even for demanding applications like those in the aerospace and defense industries.
GS: What’s coming up next for Chromatic 3D? Any big milestones on the horizon?
CL: We’re moving from evaluation to production with several customers. By the end of this year, we expect to have four major customers in high-gear production mode. That’s a significant milestone and it comes with a revenue milestone. We’re also now focused on cultivating repeat customers. To support our growth, we aim to double our headcount by 2023.
GS: What wisdom would you share with an entrepreneur just starting her company?
CL: It’s important to understand the sheer enormity of the commitment involved. When you’re starting out, it’s hard to appreciate the difference between working for a company and running your own business. When you work for a company, you have the option to quit. When you start your own company and put your heart and soul into it, there is no quitting. It’s a whole new perspective. The sense of commitment and responsibility isn’t that different from what you feel as a parent — especially when you start taking money from investors. And it’s not just your responsibility; it’s an obligation shared with your family. There’s no exit clause for them either. I’m grateful my family has been so supportive because I can’t imagine doing it without their support.
GS: Tell us about a time you or your company hit a bump in the road and how you worked to overcome it?
CL: COVID-19 was a bump in the road for us, as it was for many companies. It was totally outside our control. We had no way of knowing whether people would be able to work, whether customers would stick around and whether we’d face a post-apocalyptic economy. I knew I had to approach the challenge with confidence, make decisions and move forward. I’m proud of the way we weathered it.
As a chemistry-based company, we were considered an essential business, so we could keep our labs open and work on solving our R&D challenges. Though we considered laying off staff, like many companies, we stayed committed to the team. My approach was “we’re in this together,” and my team really appreciated the commitment. We hit slick spots when people had to take salary cuts, but we haven’t had any attrition. In the end, it worked out for us. We had several customers shut down, but we kept working on the problems, and when they came back in a few months, we were right there with a proven product for them.
GS: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has their network been helpful to you?
CL: My experience has been very positive. Golden Seeds has brilliant partners and an amazing network with a sophisticated knowledge base in terms of technology and industry. Their level of understanding of a broad array of industries and the economy is unique compared to that of other investors. They also understand the challenges of being an entrepreneur and what it takes to get things done. I appreciate that they ask what I’m thinking about, listen to what I say and ask what they can do to help. At a recent conference on International Women’s Day, another speaker observed that companies owned and led by women are the only sector that took a hit in the VC world. I love the way Golden Seeds is solving the problem — not just by talking about discrimination but by using their resources to help women build their companies. They’re women getting stuff done.
For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.