(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
In a port town that used to be have big steel and car plants, plenty of economic leaders in Baltimore see a manufacturing revival as the key to its future.
While one part of that strategy involves setting aside many acres of land and luring in big companies, there’s also a role for startups who are addressing how products are made.
Since cofounding Fusiform as a Johns Hopkins undergrad, Param Shah and his growing team came to recognize the importance of software to advanced manufacturing processes. From entrepreneurs who started 2017 by making Technical.ly Baltimore’s realLIST and Forbes’ 30 Under 30, the story is also an example of how entrepreneurs usually don’t end up where they started.
It started with a device.
— Fusiform (@fusiformco) September 8, 2016
Shah, a native of California, founded a nonprofit in high school called the Lotus Life Foundation, which set out to provide medical treatment to children in rural India. But he saw a bigger problem in the time it took to get supplies to rural villages, namely orthotics (or splints and braces).
He and Fusiform cofounder Alex Mathews initially set out to build an orthotics device that could be 3D-printed. But they soon saw that the physical device was ahead of its time.
“What we realized in that development was that there needed to be a pipeline. This industry was not ready. They barely had anything digitized in the first place, and were still using pen and paper and fax to order devices,” Shah said.
So they began a shift toward building software that could scan an area where a brace needed to be worn, produce a design and send it directly to manufacturing. The company was part of Accelerate Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab in 2016. Throughout that time, Shah and Mathews gradually came to the realization that the solution could be bigger.
The expansion started with the realization they could build a pipeline for all of orthopedics, beyond braces and splints.
Later, an advisor introduced them to a company who wanted a quicker way to produce custom, 3D-printed glasses, and they found a use case there.
That was an eye-opener.
“What we realized at that moment was that mass customization software we were making for orthopedics could be used for pretty much anything manufactured using digital fabrication,” Shah said.
It’s still based on the idea of producing something by taking a scan and producing a device. Shah said the core of what the software introduces is a way to create products at scale that are made with even more exact custom specifications, and faster — but still cost the same as what’s currently available.
It can also now fit other kinds of production. The company has a partnership with Autodesk that gives them access to tools focused around design and automation.
While Shah said there are lots of potential verticals, the company is staying focused on the expansion with eyewear and footwear.
Still, they thought it required some new branding. The new verticals and others that follow will be under the banner of FactoryFour. Orthopedics will still be under Fusiform.
The company has funding and space to keep going. They closed on $800,000 in seed funding from investors including John Cammack, members of the Baltimore Angels and have also received money from TEDCO’s Seed Investment Fund and the Abell Foundation. New customers in eyewear and orthopedics bring revenue into the picture.
The team has also expanded, and the company moved out of Impact Hub Baltimore into new offices in Mt. Vernon.
Shah said the growth he’s seen in the city’s startup scene made him want to build a company here.
“Baltimore impressed me with the strength and cohesiveness of its network,” he said.