Raymond Weitekamp Is Manufacturing an Additive Future
PolySpectra, which Weitekamp founded as a fellow at Cyclotron Road, is poised to revolutionize 3D printing.
Raymond Weitekamp has a thick mop of sandy blonde hair, a hybrid between a Beatles mop-top and a Bieber shag, that tightly frames his blue eyes and slightly crooked nose. If you took him for a surfer who’d spent time in a boxing ring, you’d be wrong. At the very least, you might suggest that he is from Southern California. And on that score, you would be right.
But unless you happen to closely follow developments in polymer science, you likely missed Weitekamp’s big discovery — the one on which he founded polySpectra, a startup that is looking to make an indelible mark on 3D printing.
“If I took this plastic spoon, which people use every day and just throw away, and if I put a pea on it and pulled the shovel back and flung the pea at you, the spoon would flex right back into its shape. If the spoon was 3D printed with what’s available today, it would have either broken when I pulled it back or it would have remained bent backward,” he says, with a wry smile.
Weitekamp’s startup, polySpectra, has developed a resin for 3D-printed plastic that is simultaneously very tough — so it can take impact, it’s not brittle — and can also withstand high temperatures. “That combination — no one else can do that,” says Weitekamp. “And everybody has been trying to do it. Because that is what you take for granted in every plastic product in your life today.”
But polySpectra isn’t looking to disrupt the plastic spoon business. Its aim is to make 3D printing a viable tool for manufacturing engineering-grade parts for medical, aerospace, and other industries with exacting specifications, a feat the hyped-up 3D printing industry has thus far failed to achieve. It will do so while consuming just two percent of the energy used by an injection molding tool, or a CNC milling tool, Weitekamp asserts. But the weightier energy savings would be realized if the materials were used for light-weighting in transportation or other fuel-intensive applications.
“Transportation accounts for 30 percent of all US energy use. If you could replace every piece of steel in cars and planes with plastic, you could save 12 quadrillion BTUs, which would halve our current transportation-related energy use,” says Weitekamp. “But what is potentially even bigger is if you could design and make products that were impossible to manufacture in the past, using our stuff so the plastics are high strength and light-weight.”
The Importance of Breaking Things, and Being Hard to Break
“What Ray is trying to do, in creating a super durable plastic, is awesome,” says Mike Biddle, who founded MBA Polymers, which developed a process for recycling durable plastics, such as those used in electronics. “There’s a lot of junk being made today with 3D printing. So, if Ray can improve on that, that’s fantastic. There is a huge opportunity.”
But having spent his career pioneering a new kind of plastics recycling, Biddle knows first-hand how hard it can be to disrupt the plastics industry. “It’s tough to go up against them and say ‘look I’ve got something better than you have,’” he says.
Of course, that David vs. Goliath sentiment is at the core of any disruptive innovation, and part of every entrepreneur’s pitch. But while Weitekamp today has a clear product vision for polySpectra’s technology — and which Goliath to challenge — it wasn’t always so.
In 2014, as he was finishing his PhD at Caltech under the tutelage of Nobel-prize winning chemist Robert Grubbs, Weitekamp applied for the Cyclotron Road entrepreneurial technology fellowship. At the time, he had already filed more than 20 patents. And he’d developed a new type of chemistry and an approach to photolithography, which he dubbed PhotoLithographic Olefin Metathesis Polymerization (PLOMP). He was aiming PLOMP toward the semiconductor industry, where it had a straightforward application to printing integrated circuits for computer chips or other microelectronic devices.
But the most obvious path is not always the best. Early in his fellowship, the Cyclotron Road program team introduced Weitekamp to a semiconductor industry veteran, Omkaram (Om) Nalamasu, chief technology officer of Applied Materials and a member of Cyclotron Road’s leadership council, who convinced him that breaking into the entrenched semiconductor market just wasn’t in the cards. The industry was already dominated by a trio of players who would be nearly impossible to supplant. “He said ‘Raymond whatever you do, don’t go into this industry.’ It was one of the best pieces of advice I got,” Weitekamp recalls. “The last thing I needed was encouragement just for the sake of positive reinforcement.”
So, over the course of the first half of the two-year fellowship, Weitekamp and his newly-born company explored a host of alternative applications for the chemistry behind PLOMP, including microfluidics and nanostructured materials. After dozens of conversations with potential customers, investors, and advisors in each of these markets, and countless whiteboard sketches of value chains and business models, a clear frontrunner emerged. “The more I learned about 3D printing, the more I realized it would be awesome if we could print production-quality materials. There was still a lot of technical risk associated with it, but we thought if we could get it to work it would have the biggest impact on manufacturing as a whole,” says Weitekamp.
By sharpening its focus, the startup’s new goal emerged: to sell specialized printing resins, enabled by chemistry that Weitekamp developed. Specifically, polySpectra focused on developing stereolithography photopolymers (plastics printed using light) capable of delivering mechanical and chemical properties comparable to conventional, durable plastics. This can turn polymer-based 3D printers into tools for additive manufacturing (as opposed to the traditional “subtractive” manufacturing which uses etching, cutting or otherwise removing material to form three-dimensional objects).
That foundational work led polySpectra to releasing its first product, a resin called COR Alpha, last fall. “We went all-in on 3D printing, psychologically and technically, as a team,” Weitekamp recalls.
Born This Way
In kindergarten, when asked to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up, Weitekamp came up with a guy in a lab coat with a beaker filled with chemicals. That’s no surprise. His dad, Daniel Weitekamp, is a professor of chemical physics at Caltech. His mother is also a Caltech professor; she teaches presentation skills. It’s a pretty sweet pedigree for an entrepreneurial scientist.
Applied science has always piqued Weitekamp’s interest. “There is a really primal, alchemic magic to being able to say you made something,” he says. “Or in thinking about something that’s never been made before, and asking ‘how might you make that?’”
But even as he entered Cyclotron Road, he was not yet convinced starting a business was his true calling — and he knew from experience that his trajectory could be thrown off course by events outside his control.
Just before graduating from high school, Weitekamp’s car was T-boned in a horrific wreck that he was very lucky to survive. The accident left him with a shattered femur and ended his days as a competitive fencer. By the time he started undergraduate studies at Princeton, his limp was hard to notice but the emotional scars were far from healed. Music, which he had pursued as a hobby in high school, became a driving force in his life.
“I was completely compelled to make music. I had to do it, there was no choice,” he recalls. In that new environment, where no one really understood what he’d just been through, it was how he processed his trauma. He dove into electronic music (though he integrates his voice and other instruments) and joined the Princeton Laptop Orchestra.
Under his musical moniker ingMob he released an album, called Marrow, while pursuing his PhD, and the title track explores the accident and its aftermath directly. It drew a fair bit of attention and was reviewed in LA Weekly, Wired and Spin.
When asked if he sees any shared sensibilities between making materials and making music, Weitekamp says it’s actually the opposite. “In science, you can never be right — you can only have an increasingly degree of certainty. In art and music, you can never be wrong. I really like that.”
Music has become his avocation — he’d never want to rely on it for income, anyway. But now that his days are focused on building polySpectra, “it’s really important for me at a personal level to have an activity that doesn’t have a business model, so to speak,” he says.
The Big Deal Behind polySpectra
It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in February, in West Berkeley, and the temptation to ditch the lab and go play outside or hit up happy hour at the nearby brewery is pretty strong, but the lab is hopping. Michele Guide, polySpectra’s director of product development, is tending to a bank of 3D printers in various stages of printing a batch of orders — dogbone shapes for evaluating tensile strength and small bars for flexural testing. Spread out on the lab bench are the recently-printed orders, being readied for shipping.
It’s impossible to see how the activity inside those printers is different than any other stereolithographic printer. Yet, there is some very special sauce inside polySpectra’s flagship product: COR Alpha. Shorthand for cyclic olefin resin, COR Alpha — or rather the things it produces — also don’t look much different than the same parts printed with conventional resin.
“The printer is the same, the way the light hits the liquid is the same. The post-processing is pretty much the same. But chemically, molecularly, we use completely different starting materials, a completely different cross-linking mechanism, and with that we can achieve completely different materials properties,” Weitekamp says.
And all of that — the IP on which the company was founded — traces back to the big, career-shaping discovery that Weitekamp made while he was a PhD candidate. Or rather, it all traces back to him being a little careless one day while running an experiment.
At the time, he was studying light-matter interactions — specifically the interactions of polymers and light and how they could be used in photolithography. Researchers at the University of Calgary had recently published results from a study in which they’d developed a new light-activated catalyst to trigger olefin metathesis, a chemical reaction used to create plastics. In the dark, according to the research, this catalyst would do nothing, but when light was shined on it, it had 100 percent yield.
“Up to that point there were other reports of light-activated systems, but either they were really bad in both the dark and the light or they were really good in both. You need the contrast — that reactivity difference is what’s really valuable. We call it a latent catalyst,” Weitekamp explains.
There was a fair amount of research into different catalysts for olefin metathesis in the Caltech lab where Weitekamp worked because it was founded by Grubbs, who developed a ruthenium-based catalyst that now has wide commercial applications.
Weitekamp wanted to replicate the findings of the University of Calgary paper to see if the catalyst could be used in a photoresist for printing electronics. He found that it could. But, he also needed to run the same experiment with a control, in which he would not add the light-activated catalyst. In that version, the photoresist was not supposed to work.
But it did.
Turns out, in preparing the control photopolymer, Weitekamp had accidentally contaminated it with a ruthenium vinyl ether complex, left over from another step in the process. Ironically, this compound is widely used to stop reactions. “Basically for 20 years everyone in the field was throwing this stuff out when they were done with it. What I figured out was that it wasn’t totally dead — you could wake it up again by shining light on it,” he says.
Plus, it was far more light-reactive than even the catalyst he was evaluating. A few errant molecules led to a significant discovery that is opening new possibilities for 3D printing and making it competitive against conventionally-produced durable plastics.
Of course, back at his Caltech laboratory, the material that would evolve into COR Alpha and form polySpectra’s flagship product was just an intriguing academic result with little practical relevance.
To get to that first product, Weitekamp leaned on the eminent resources of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — where Cyclotron Road is based — to address the considerable scientific risks in its path. This included adjusting the basic chemistry of the resin so that it can be produced at low cost and high volume, optimizing the recipe for the right light frequency to match with existing print systems and to print with high resolution, and ensuring that the properties of final products match those of the conventionally-produced plastics polySpectra is competing against.
Building the company also required delving into techno-economic modeling to prove that polySpectra’s optimized materials and methods would translate into a sustainable business.
As he’s built polySpectra, Weitekamp has also leaned on a phenomenal network of advisors, including his former academic advisor Grubbs, whose perspective, since he has also commercialized technology based on chemistry he developed, is especially useful. “He’s working in an area with reasonable competition but he has a good hook into it. It’ll be about how he differentiates his tech from others’,” says Grubbs. In terms of having the right personality and character to succeed, Grubbs says there’s no secret recipe, but adds: “I’m always amazed at who succeeds and who does not in commercializing technology. You need people whose egos won’t get in the way.”
Weitekamp says becoming a leader and manager has been a far greater challenge than he anticipated. “In the last year I made a lot of progress and spent a lot of time working on that and learning how to shut up and listen more,” he says. His advice to other entrepreneurial scientists is to invest time early on in building those soft skills. Academia, he says, does not produce managers. It doesn’t arm people with the emotional intelligence they need to lead. “I definitely underestimated just how challenging it is to manage a team,” he says.
But Joshua Posamentier, an advisor and early investor in polySpectra who has closely tracked Weitekamp’s trajectory during his time as a Cyclotron Road fellow, thinks Weitekamp has evolved into a capable leader. “Ray touches every part of the organization, but he manages it well,” he explains. “He elicits feedback from myself and others — collaboration is a big deal for him.”
For polySpectra to compete and thrive in an industry closely guarded by a handful of vertically-integrated providers, it will need to bring that highly collaborative approach to the marketplace, explains Chris Prucha, CEO of Origin. Origin is developing mass production systems for printing products at scale. Prucha says the additive manufacturing industry is at an important inflection point.
After thirty years of development, 3D printing is finally moving from prototyping to full-scale additive manufacturing of end-use parts. Consumer brands and industrial customers alike are starting to form partnerships — Adidas, for example, has an exclusive contract with 3D printing company Carbon3D to produce soles for its Futurecraft shoes. But the way those types of marquee deployments are structured is also indicative of how the market is limiting its own growth.
“If you buy a [printing] system from Hewlett Packard or Carbon3D, you rely on that vendor for everything, including software, hardware and support,” he says. The model that Origin and polySpectra are advancing is one inwhich different vendors with different competencies can serve customers in an open marketplace. That way, he says, “polySpectra can innovate new chemistries, get to scale with a modular hardware system and work within a network. This will drive costs down while advancing the technology.”
That shift is easier said than done, but it’s what Prucha is pitching his business on and what polySpectra needs to happen if it wants to penetrate the market as a resin provider. Prucha feels two big drivers will undergird the change: customers wanting an open market — of course, because it provides more price competition and more vendors — and polySpectra’s groundbreaking COR Alpha resin. “Their material chemistry, from a mechanical properties standpoint, is vastly superior to anything on the market today,” says Prucha. “And it will have a lot of uses in the automotive, aerospace, and other industries.”
Catalyzing an Entrepreneur
When Weitekamp applied for the Cyclotron Road fellowship, he had three options. He could continue down the path toward a professorship, he could look for a job in industry, or he could try to commercialize his discovery. It’s a fork that many scientists and engineers come to, but the huge stakes and low probability of success for a technology venture based in the physical sciences — not to mention the considerable capital requirements and long development timeline — generally makes option C the least appealing, if not functionally impossible.
Were it not for the Cyclotron Road fellowship, Weitekamp, who turned 30 in February, says he’d now be in academia, “freaking out about how to get tenure.”
Providing the resources needed for fellows to push their innovations forward — and, importantly, determine whether those innovations can really be translated into viable products or services — is the reason Cyclotron Road exists. In some cases, fellows emerge from the program having determined that academia or a post in an established company is actually their best and highest calling. Clearly, Weitekamp is all in as an entrepreneur. But getting here was a transformation that included many months of work trying to narrow the array of possible applications for his innovation, driving the technology itself to a first product, and learning the basics of how to run a technology-based enterprise.
“Ray is a creative, ambitious chemist who stumbled upon a discovery that would have likely remained in the world of ideas and publications while he continued toward a professorship. Instead, Cyclotron Road gave him an opportunity to take a shot at a different path, where that discovery is getting out into the world, as a useful product,” says Ilan Gur, the program’s founder. “Having seen his transformation as an individual, I know that we’ve played a huge part in cultivating a new technology leader for the country and world.”
But don’t imagine a movie montage of a hardscrabble, headphone-wearing chemistry punk transforming into some buttoned-up executive. Weitekamp still looks like he’d rather be surfing. He still has lots of very strong opinions — and feelings, which he likes to share on his blog. He’s still pretty sardonic. And while he’s got the rigor needed to run a scrappy startup, he’s still got a life outside the lab and the conference room. But he now also has a visceral grasp of the complexities of running a business — and knows why developing an amazing product is only part of the recipe.
“Ray approached building his business with the same interest that he approaches technical stuff, and that’s unusual,” says Posamentier. “Technical founders don’t always see the value in the business side. They think ‘if I build it, they will come’ but that’s not often the case.”
Back at his lab, where the 3D printers are churning, Weitekamp is feeling good about the company’s current path: filling orders and keeping polySpectra’s first customers engaged, interested, and confident that COR Alpha is indeed the best material they can use to produce durable products, to spec. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “Because we’ve eliminated the scientific risk. We know the product works and all the money in the world wouldn’t help us if that wasn’t the case.”