From Spark to Bonfire: The NIH 3D Print Exchange "Ignites"

A picture of a person holding a lit sparkler

A Bit of History

The NIH 3D Print Exchange has garnered national and international media attention since our official public launch in June 2014. Development started in early December 2013, with beta testing in mid-January 2014. However, the scripts at the heart of the project trace their roots as far back as March 2007, when we at NIAID started creating 3D prints of molecules to help NIAID researchers make new discoveries. In late 2012, we started brainstorming about how to use those custom scripts to help researchers create 3D-printable model files on their own. We used those ideas to win seed funding through HHS Ignite, a new program sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in June 2013.

Fail Early, and Fail Often

HHS Ignite taught us to “fail early and fail often” by producing a “minimal viable product”, and then getting customer feedback in improving that product. Well-defined project milestones and concrete metrics were relentlessly demanded from us with rapid turnaround. Roadblocks and pivots were expected. By February 2014, we delivered a mature prototype that was awarded additional funding from HHS Ventures in June 2014 to scale up the project. One of the mottos of the sponsors of HHS Ignite is that “innovation is a direct result of the freedom to experiment”. This may be why so many Nobel laureates tend to do their work early in their career. (See also "Age dynamics in scientific creativity".)

Apple’s success with the iPhone was due, at least in part, to their identifying attributes that fulfilled customers' latent needs—namely, a slick, touch-screen interface and extensive catalog of apps that extended functionality beyond just a phone/organizer. The iPhone was released in 2007, and now, hundreds of millions of people can’t live without a smartphone! And yet, the iPhone was simply an elegant and efficient assembly of technologies that already existed. However, the iPhone changed the world, and it is not the first invention to do so.

Thomas Alva Edison, January 1922; photo by Louis Bachrach

Vision and Entrepreneurship

It is instructive to compare Thomas Edison (phonograph, electric light, motion pictures) and Nikola Tesla (alternating current generation and motors, radio transmission). Both had bold visions and expended tremendous effort to provide products of which customers were not even aware they needed, but that would ultimately become indispensable. However, Edison grew an empire, and Tesla died penniless.

Nikola Tesla, aged 34, circa 1890; photo by Napoleon Sarony

Why? Edison, unlike Tesla, was not just a innovator and inventor, but he was a highly successful entrepreneur. It is not enough just to create new ideas and bring them to life — ideas must be communicated and strategized effectively.

Looking to the Future

At the Exchange, we aim to keep this in mind as we continue to cultivate a community surrounding 3D printing in the biosciences. Our efforts are focused on you! We are investigating new ways we can make our site better, faster, and more intuitive. There is a lot of potential here, and we are just getting started, so stay tuned, and share your ideas.