Orthotics can be sexy.
Karen Schouwenburg really thinks it’s possible. “We’re not there yet,” she admits. “We’re getting there, though. We’re well on our way.”
If anyone can convince you of the latent sexiness of an insole, it’s Schouwenburg. She’s the founder and CEO of SOLS, which creates custom 3-D printed orthotic insoles by scanning customers’ feet. Yesterday, the company announced that it has raised $6.4 million in a Series A round of financing.
“Until now, our focus has been on engineering,” Schouwenburg says. With the influx of additional cash, she can hire a branding agency, focus on product management and concentrate on making her insoles look…well, sexier.
Schouwenburg is something of a 3-D printing pioneer – before founding SOLS, she was the director of operations and industrial engineering Shapeways, a 3-D printing marketplace which prints objects designed and uploaded by users. While there, she oversaw the 3-D printing of everything from egg cups to lampshades to shoes.
So why leave to found a company that just makes 3-D printed insoles?
Schouwenburg predicts that as the 3-D printing market evolves, value will shift away from novelty towards usefulness. “Things will really start to get interesting when we stop looking at 3-D printing as technology for the sake of technology and start thinking about how it can impact the things in our lives that matter to us,” she says.
A 3-D printed custom coffee mug may be novel, but its impact is small.
The ability to walk more comfortably and reduce pain? Schouwenburg is betting that’s something people care about. Our feet are all unique -- since founding the company, “I’ve become acutely aware of how different they all are…frankly, I’m amazed shoes even work at all,” she says – and yet the orthotics industry struggles to provide customized orthotics at a reasonable price point. 3-D printing may be the solution, providing a more seamless, accurate and quick solution than traditional manual processes.
For now, SOLS is focusing on working with podiatrists, orthopedics and physical therapists; the company provides each doctor with an iPad equipped with the SOLS app that, using a process called photogrammetry, takes hundreds of photos of a patient’s feet and knits them together to create a detailed virtual model. (“It’s great, because you don’t need expensive equipment, just a camera,” Schouwenburg says.)
Doctors can then use a web-based tool to assess problems and make alterations to the 3-D model in order to biometrically correct a patient’s walk. When they’re done, the model is sent to the SOLS manufacturing facility to be printed.
Currently, SOLS is working with 50 doctors, a number it hopes to see grow to 200 by the end of the year. (Each doctor, Schouwenburg predicts, should prescribe between 20 to 40 insoles a month.) At $300-$700 – SOLS’ suggested retail price is $500, but the actual price will depend on the doctor -- the insoles don’t come cheap, even when you subtract the 15 percent that can be billed to insurance providers. At this point, they’re really only meant for “people have more advanced foot problems and need hands on knowledge of medical professional,” Schouwenburg says.
By next year, however, SOLS plans to offer a separate service for anyone who “feels discomfort, or just wants to feel less tired at the end of the day.” Consumers will be able to scan their feet from home using an smartphone app, and the insoles will cost around $100.
The way Schouwenburg tells it, orthotics is simply the first, biometrically correct step along the winding and exciting road of 3-D printing.
While Schouwenburg doesn’t envision a world where we’ll all have 3-D printers, she does believe the technology will make our lives more comfortable. “For so long we’ve been shoving our feet and our bodies and our hands into products that don’t fit us because that’s what we have to do,” she says. “You have a set amount of sizes, and so you pick the size that mostly fits you.”
We may get hung up on the technology’s ability to print figurines, but the real revolution lies in its potential to dramatically lower the cost of customization. In the near future, everything from intricately customized prosthetics, safety helmets, braces, to shoes will be available at an affordable price point, Schouwenburg predicts. “Mass customization is something that the market wants.”
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