The tech world is full of wunderkinds who breeze through college and walk away from high five-figure jobs with free-lunch firms to focus on bringing the world the next big thing. Indeed, a baby-faced founder and CEO is practically a prerequisite for any start-up with serious designs on market success in the young, pumped-up and increasingly crowded tech arena.
Kegan Schouwenburg, the pixieish CEO and co-founder of SOLS, is aware of this and – as the face of a company that 3D-prints orthotic insoles – she knows that effectively marketing a traditionally frumpy product is a big part of her job. But she's OK with that, because she believes in that product — as only one who has suffered chronic foot pain can believe in a product that offers relief.
"I have flat feet. I pronate. Ever since I was a little kid I knew this was going to be a problem," says Schouwenburg from the loft-like office space she shares with her 60 employees in a converted Chelsea warehouse. "And I remember my mom taking me to the podiatrist and getting me fit for orthopedics. I was already the not-cool kid and now I had these...."
Flash-forward a dozen years to Schouwenburg studying industrial design at Pratt, where an interest in 3D printing eventually lands her a job at the helm of the "Factory of the Future," Shapeways, the 3D-printing company and online retailer.
"I started looking for applications for 3D printing in the mass consumer space and sort of what products it was going to change and what categories made sense to use 3D printing," recalls Schouwenburg. "I was familiar with Invisalign and saw what they did [in taking a] scan to generate to print model and apply it to braces and started thinking about other things like that."
Her initial concept was to create a line of customized footwear but she didn't think the 3D printing industry could support the operation she envisioned. Insoles, on the other hand, would be a step in the right direction.
"Everybody has feet and everybody has foot pain and different types of people are buying the product," says Schouwenburg of the humble insole's mass appeal.
"Here's this opportunity where we can apply design to a category that nobody's applying design to and say, 'OK, we can take something that isn't desirable and something that people view as almost a nuisance and we can make it something incredible that enables people to... live their lives in a pain-free way.' I think if we can do that, that's pretty cool."
Since launching SOLS two years ago, 29-year-old Schouwenburg and her team of programmers, designers, engineers and salespeople have grown a network of more than 600 podiatrists, physical therapists and chiropractors to size and administer their insoles at a cost of $300 to $500 a pair.
Which raises the question of whether SOLS are simply providing temporary relief from a potentially deep-rooted problem that foot pain sufferers would be better off addressing through corrective measures.
"If you're prone to flat feet and if your arches are already collapsing, that's going to continue as you get older and... creating an arch where there was none is not something that's going to happen. What you can do is you can stop it from getting any worse. So this is not the same as braces, where you're correcting your teeth and they're staying in that new place. This is much more of a support to your lifestyle."
The SOLS provider network is currently concentrated along the East Coast, but Schouwenburg says the future will bring the West Coast and the Midwest into higher focus. Style diversification is also on the horizon.
"Right now, we offer three shoe types: a dress shoe, a sneaker and a wide shoe. SOLS are not currently available for high heels but it's something that's on the SOLS road map. As somebody that loves high heels, that's part of where this company came from and it's absolutely something that we'll tackle down the line."
Will Schouwenburg and her company's custom insoles catapult industrial 3D printing into the mainstream of manufacturing?
"The whole concept of SOLS rests on creating a vertically integrated software chain that enables scalable mass customization," says Schouwenburg from under asymmetrical white bangs. "This is not about going and buying a Kinect scanner at the Best Buy and using that to make something in CAD and making a product. This is about an end-to-end solution that enables us to customize ourselves and right now we're using that for SOLS. We picked that as an application because we saw the potential of it as being so vast."
Does this mean 3D printing will eventually put bespoke culture in everyone's reach? Schouwenburg seems to think so. Meanwhile, she's making strides in establishing SOLS as a company that's pioneering how 3D-printed products are delivered in the medical community.