Today, a 3-D printer called the New Matter MOD-t hits Indiegogo. It’s expected to cost $250, making it the most affordable 3-D printer to date (comparable printers are in the $350 to $1,300 range). It’s also being billed as one of the simplest 3-D printers: users buy and download designs for chess pieces or kitchen utensils or whatever they want to make in a storefront that crosses the App Store with Etsy. They can then edit these objects--changing size or adding texture--about as easily as adding an Instagram filter. The printer, engineered by inventor Steve Schell, is expected to be built with a third of the parts of its peers, allowing it to reach that $250 price point.
The MOD-t is the first release of Frog Ventures, the venture design* arm of Frog (think venture capital, but with the investment being design rather than money). Frog Ventures backed Schell's startup New Matter to bring the MOD-t to market.
Frog is the design consultancy behind some of the most important products in recent history--Apple’s early line of computers, for example. But in recent years, Frog has become less known for physical products. That's in part because the company has developed expertise in software but also because the Fortune 500 companies that hire Frog for product design work are secretive. “We do work for some very very big clients, and those very very big clients are quite proprietary about their relationship with us," Ethan Imboden, head of Frog Ventures, says. "They're secretive about how they get their innovative product into the market, and they don’t necessarily want our name associated with that. Even as a new employee, I didn’t see the work I’m most excited about until after I joined Frog. I had to pull rank on people and say, ‘This is work I’m allowed to see. I need to take a look into the portfolio.’”
This secrecy may sound cool, but the reality is a burden for Frog, creating what Imboden calls “a vacuum of content” as to what Frog is doing. No doubt, it’s one reason that when everyone talks about Frog, they (even we) still talk about Apple.
Frog Ventures is the firm’s development studio outside this cone of silence. It’s currently working with three startups--New Matter is the only one that’s public--to make big, showy bets on new products. “We have an excellent opportunity to say, ‘Here’s exactly what we did.' That’s very valuable for us, to put the work out there, be very vocal, and take accountability for it, no matter how it goes,” Imboden says.
Frog’s role in each of these startups may vary. One startup, for instance, has blocked time to embed itself in Frog’s offices to learn to think like Frog designers. In the case of the MOD-t, Frog's role was similar to the one they adopt with their secretive companies. Schell had developed the core MOD-t technology over at the technology incubator Idealab. While 3-D printers have intricate mechanics to float the build plate precisely in 3-D space (basically, moving the printed object around the needle-sized hose of melted plastic ink), the New Matter team had developed what they describe as a “unique mechanical solution” that reduced the clockwork of parts by a third.
“For me personally, that motion system was the breakthrough I needed to say we have a significant advantage,” Schell says. “We could create a 3-D printer at the cost target we’re hoping for.”
Meanwhile, Idealab had been in casual talks with Frog Ventures about new products in their pipeline. The MOD-t caught Frog’s eye.
“What we’re looking for, and what we see here, is a technological advantage that creates a whole set of opportunities,” Imboden says. “And the goal is to tie those opportunities back to the real world and the experience of the end consumer, to make sure the company is living up to its promise, and living up to the full opportunity of the technology they’re embedding.”
Frog and New Matter co-developed the MOD-t’s experience--the approach of using a marketplace where designers could sell their products the way software developers sell apps--and a team of roughly 12 from Frog built out much of the product. They polished the industrial design (the mechanics and the aesthetic). They created mockups of the digital app and marketplace. And they built the MOD-t brand itself--right down to shooting the Indiegogo video.
Now, all New Matter and Frog can do is wait. Truth be told, it’s hard to imaging the MOD-t being anything but a monstrous hit in a crowdfunding world obsessed with 3-D printers already. But Frog is mentally prepped for failure. “The reality is, there’s a risk in all of our projects. If there’s not a certain measure of risk, there can’t be a certain measure of success,” Imboden says. “Will we always knock it out of the park? No, I don’t think that’s possible. If we did, we’d be knocking it out of a very small park for very small risk.”
* An earlier version of this story called Frog Ventures a "venture capital arm" of Frog, but Frog Ventures makes no monetary investments in companies.