Just south of Buffalo, a building behind aerospace engineering company K-TECHnologies houses a company that can take a concept for a product, quickly design and produce prototypes, and provide low-volume manufacturing and assembly locally. The company, Innosek, is a spin-off of Brian Bischoff’s previous company with his business partner, Oscar Lee, SmartPrint3D.
Bischoff said that they had several reasons to rename and reconfigure the company, but an expansion of their vision played a significant role.
“The name itself sounded very hobbyist, and we’re trying to expand beyond 3D printing,” he said. Rather than invest more time and resources into SmartPrint3D, they chose to make the switch to Innosek in order to strategically plan for future growth. Additive manufacturing is still the heart of the business, but they want to emphasize the breadth of their services.
“With Innosek, our focus is more on, ‘How do we allow 3D printing to support people who are low-volume manufacturing?’” Bischoff said. SmartPrint3D was positioned as a company that could design and create a prototype; Innosek offers a way to move seamlessly from prototyping to full production, including assembly. "So we want to be the pioneers in that field to figure out how to use 3D printing in a fashion that you can create products that go to market."
Bischoff and Lee spent years learning how to take a concept for a product and bring it to market. As a student, Bischoff bought a 3D printer and taught himself AutoCAD in order to design a specialty water bottle to mix fitness supplement powders at the gym. As he became proficient, he began taking odd jobs designing AutoCAD objects for other people. SmartPrint3D grew out of the realization that there existed a large pool of potential clients who had ideas for products they wanted to invent, but who lacked the knowledge to start. In effect, the company offered a way for those aspiring inventors to skip the years of struggle that Bischoff and Lee endured.
“I always sit down with any inventor, and if I'm not the resource, I tell them right away—say, ‘Hey, I'm not the resource, I'm not your guy, but let me show you what I would do if I was in your spot,’” Bischoff said. “I still sit down with them, even if I know I'm not gonna sell anything to them, because I wish people did that for me when I was first starting up.”
Read about another of Bischoff’s business endeavors here.
Bischoff elaborated on this regret when asked to assess the Buffalo startup environment. His feelings about his experience as a local entrepreneur are mixed, he said. “I think that there's more support for later-stage startups [than early stage startups]. And we're not there yet, but we're getting close to that, and I already feel the big difference from where we were and where we are now.” He felt that he wasn’t necessarily taken seriously until he had already achieved some success. Somewhat ruefully, he admitted, “That's my opinion—I could be wrong and I could have talked to the wrong people, but that's how I felt.”
Regardless of any early struggles, the company appears to be thriving. Innosek hired its first full-time employee in April, and Bischoff said that, so far, Innosek is profitable for 2019. “We are completely bootstrapped—we haven’t tried to raise capital yet,” he said. The company recently prototyped a design for a local company and is now manufacturing the design in a run of 700, assembling a combination of parts printed by Innosek and sourced parts. Bischoff said that the company is well-known; he declined to name it on the record in order to protect his client’s privacy.
Until now, the service end of the business—3D printing for clients—has been sufficient to fund the continued research and development of Innosek’s own products. However, Bischoff said, “… we've proved our concept and now we need real capital to start getting things moving.”
The company is currently developing a high-detail concrete printer that Bischoff envisions being a unique tool with a wide variety of applications. “We want to be able to pretty much replicate the natural microstructure of any surface, like a roadway surface. There's also architectural benefits for it,” he said, noting that the project is still at an early stage. The company is also working on a 3D printer with the Department of Defense, though Bischoff was unable to disclose the details.
Bischoff is still ultimately glad to be working in the Buffalo area. (“Besides the weather,” he laughed. “Everything else is good.”) The company is based in Blasdell, behind K-TECHnologies, where Bischoff works during the day as an engineering manager. K-TECHnologies hired him when he moved his company there and allowed him to run the company while working for them.
“So I pretty much lived there, but it was a great deal because I was making money while spending money and just working a lot,” he said. “They have another company out back that does machining, and I was moved over there as an engineering manager to work on AS9100/ISO 9001 certification. So now I have a full-time job as an engineering manager right next door at a machine shop, and I am working on the AS9100/ISO 9001 certification for them.”
The fact that he now works during the day—his previous job was second-shift—has created some complications for him. To anyone following a similar path, he advised, “If possible, I would say try to work an off-shift job, because business is done during the day. If you're in that business where you have to talk to people, meet people, and shake hands, you probably want to be free during the day to make those phone calls and meetings.”
Though he has no immediate plans to move, the 12-foot ceilings of the space that houses Innosek may one day become too cramped for the size of the company he envisions. The idea of eventually purchasing part of Buffalo’s old industrial infrastructure excites him. “I feel like would be a really cool atmosphere,” he laughed. “Like, here's a building that was used to manufacture parts in the 1800s, and here's this company that has this new technology that didn't exist anywhere 10 years ago.”