Before Leslie Karpas was a founder walking off a stage earlier this month with a $15,000 check in hand, he was a contracted steel fabricator who worked for almost three years with internationally famous artist and sculptor Anish Kapoor—the man who designed “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
While working at Oakland-based Performance Structures, Karpas used his knowledge of 3D modeling and digitizing to lead a team in building Kapoor’s “Turning The World Upside Down,” an 18,000-pound sculpture, designed by Kapoor, that was installed at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
It got Karpas thinking: Modeling in 3D is a natural fit for artists creating unique pieces, but can the same uniqueness be achieved for everyday consumer products using 3D modeling and printing? Picture an app that runs on a tablet or laptop with a 3D scanner attached taking digital renderings of everyday objects, customizing the design of the object to fit a particular user, and then outsourcing the printing to a manufacturer.
That line of thinking led Karpas to found Metamason, a southern California startup developing such a platform to scan, fit, and print CPAP masks, or the nighttime sleeping aids people with sleep apnea wear to bed to make sure they can breathe throughout the night. More than 100 million people worldwide have sleep apnea, and the global market for CPAP devices is more than $2 billion. Two studies from the last decade, both published in the journal 'Sleep,' found that people with sleep apnea are four to six times more likely to die. A lead author on one of the studies said the results "remove any reasonable doubt that sleep apnea is a fatal disease," as the Los Angeles Times reported.
Karpas says Metamason’s platform and printing methods will lead to less bulky and less expensive CPAP masks that fit more snugly and comfortably than what’s already on the market.
“It’s something that really needs a custom solution—the left side of your face is not like the right side of your face,” says Karpas.
With a custom CPAP mask, the amount of needed pressure to create a pneumatic seal with a person’s airways is greatly reduced. And if Metamason can prove that custom CPAP masks are a useful product, the plan is to expand its customization platform to other industries by licensing the software it’s developing to other businesses.
“By starting with CPAP, we’re using that revenue to create a greater mass customization platform that we can then license,” he says. “We could do everything from a custom golf grip for golf clubs to custom pads for a woman’s bra. Flight masks, gas masks. Bike seats. Knee pads or shoulder pads.”
Metamason is still in pre-clinical stages, but it’s nonetheless an idea that outside investors find promising. The startup was incubated at the Design Accelerator, a joint venture between Caltech and the Art Center College of Design in California. The Pasadena Angels have contributed $220,000 in funding, and at last week’s Inside 3D Printing conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Metamason took first prize at the conference’s startup pitch competition, winning a $15,000 convertible note from Asimov Ventures.
“The judges felt that Metamason … demonstrated not only a strong fundamental business, but also an innovative use of 3D printing that could change lives,” said Asimov Ventures’ Tyler Benster.
Metamason is in the middle of raising roughly $2 million to help fund regulatory testing and clinical trials and the necessary Food and Drug Administration tests. Karpas says Metamason is currently looking to recruit 300 sleep centers across the U.S. to be the first customers of the masks the startup will create.
But the innovation, at least as far as 3D printing is concerned, is the platform Karpas describes: Something where people open up a tablet or laptop with a 3D scanner attached, go into the Metamason Scan Fit Print app, and can take a digital scan of their face—or whatever else they’re designing—customize the mask, and make the purchase.
“People are being way too granular as to how they’re using 3D printers today. You should see the printer as a tool within the greater panoply of printing applications,” Karpas says. “It’s the platform that we see as really the core asset that we’re constructing.”
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