With over a decade spent in managerial and C-level roles at Objet, Stratasys and MakerBot, Jonathan Jaglom is one of the most experienced professionals in the AM industry. In 2017 he left his role at MakerBot and the AM industry entirely to work as an investor and identify the next valuable opportunity. Now he is ready to make his return and has identified the ideal path in a new startup called flō, which looks to apply material jetting technology to create a custom ophthalmic lens coating.
“I have been on the quest for the next adventure in additive manufacturing. As you may know, Objet (which later merged with Stratasys) was part of my family’s investment portfolio,” he tells VoxelMatters. “Our appetite in technology, specifically in printing and specifically here in Israel, has been present probably for the last 30 years. As a family, we invest for the long term and are committed both financially and operationally to ensuring we help build significant companies that bring innovation to the market. Stratasys is clearly a great example to that effect.”
It has taken a bit of time (nearly 3 years) for Jaglom to find the next thing after having left Stratasys in 2017. After reviewing and filtering dozens (possibly over a hundred) companies, he came across a fascinating startup – named flō – led by its founder, Claudio Rottman. “I have known Claudio for many years – he led a key role in the Chemistry team at Objet – and that pre-existing rapport helped a lot when evaluating flō further. I spent almost nine months reviewing this opportunity before opting to invest in 2020,” Jaglom tells us.
So, what does flō do? It set out to disrupt the ophthalmic market of coatings by offering customers a digital printing solution rather than the analog ones used today. For those who are unfamiliar with the process, ophthalmic lenses are typically coated through a wet process in which the lens is dipped into a vat and then the coat is dried, only to repeat the process when/if needed. The procedure is labor intensive and costly. In addition, the level of control of the coated lens is at the lens level, not beyond.
With flō’s proprietary technology, this entire process is digitized, and the level of control is not at the lens level, but at the pixel (or voxel) level. “By being able to digitally coat the lens using AM technology – Jaglom says – we have infinitely more control of where the material is jetted and where it is placed, providing huge benefits.”
Ahead of the curve
The technology developed by flō is based on a material jetting process. “We call it a multi-material and multi-layering approach. From a technical perspective, our solution is absolutely an AM one,” Jaglom confirms. This, however, also implies additional challenges, such as, for example, printing using a wide material jetting inkjet head onto a curved surface.
“The way we’ve overcome this, and other significant challenges has been by bringing on board top talent,” Jaglom reveals. “Israel has a fantastic pool of highly talented experts in the world of printing. Given our [family] reputation and past successes in the industry here in Israel, people want to be a part of the next thing, so we can bring onboard truly incredible talent. I think this is key to any technology company’s success.
From a mindset and product development perspective, at the forefront of it all, Jaglom fundamentally considers flō to be a materials company. He argues all printing companies out there should view themselves as materials-first, and systems next.
“This is of course easier said than done, but the mindset must be materials-first. To that end, our largest team (by far) is the chemistry department,” Jaglom says. “We had to address two main areas. Firstly, to be able to generate functional materials for coatings and secondly, that these materials have optical clarity. No one would wear a pair of glasses if he/she can’t see through them. Now, add to that the idea that you are printing on curved surfaces” – Jaglom adds. “Remember, optical lenses are curved, and so the printing technology is what we call a flat-on-curve one. That’s complicated. It requires reinventing an entirely new printing strategy and isn’t something that was done in the past. This is why top talent is needed to resolve these real technological challenges.”
The materials used by flō, however, are not simply 3D printable replicas of existing materials in the ophthalmic industry. “I have learned from past experiences that replicating existing materials doesn’t stick. At Stratasys when we launched an ‘ABS-like material’, it didn’t work. People didn’t want something ‘like’ what they use today, they wanted something identical. Here at flō we are dealing with additive manufacturing for the purposes of a finished product delivery, in other words, if using the AM analogy — end-use parts.
Jaglom argues that in AM you cannot just invent a material. “You have to abide to the standards within the industry. You cannot re-invent the wheel so to speak; it is way too costly to try to educate any established market and only adds concern to those wishing to adapt to a digital solution.” “At flō” – he continues – “not only do we use materials aligned with existing standards, but we also seek partnerships in material development where applicable to ensure the outcome is equal or better than any solution currently in the industry. We have to. Again, technology is the enabler of any solution, it is not the solution itself. Our product is not the platforms we develop, but the coatings we generate. Our product is the coatings. Subsequently, we must ensure we deliver standardized solutions to the ophthalmic industry.”
Cost, performance and customization
In terms of benefits to manufacturers, flō intends to deliver on three of the promises of additive manufacturing, bringing to market a product that addresses three key areas: Cost Effectiveness, Performance Enhancement, and Customization.
Flō creates coatings in a more cost-effective manner. Using a single platform for all coatings, means less Capex to deal with. Doing all these coatings in one location enables a company to save up on machine costs. Additionally, some lens coating materials (like photochromic) need to be purchased in advance, requiring inventory costs. “We can coat photochromic in-house on our system, which brings huge cost savings to our customers.”
“The ability to control things down to the pixel or voxel-level allows enhanced performance. For instance, in tinting – coloring coatings on the lens – flō can create any color combination, whereas, in today’s world, this is limited to one or two colors per lens. “In our world, we can do any graphic design, any graphics you want, any colors you want. Our palettes are infinite in color possibilities. That enhances performance. And there are other examples. For instance, our photochromic lens coatings can transition from dark to bright much faster than the industry standard. We can place the dyes specifically where we want them to be and that allows them to optimize their transition from from dark to bright. This control also enables much more color customization. The crux of it all, from a technology perspective, is that we are multi-layering, multi-material in our approach.”
Eyeing new markets
Although still relatively rare in the AM industry, the idea of developing additive technologies for specific manufacturing solutions is usually a winning one. Typical cases have been seen in the dental segment, in footwear, eyewear frames, jewelry and even in ophthalmic lens production (not coating). In many of these cases, it becomes easier to demonstrate the value proposition to potential adopters, especially when they are already familiar with additive (or digital) manufacturing processes. However, difficulties arise when it comes to entering an entirely new market with a technology that has the potential to disrupt the status quo.
“This is a key element to consider in our go-to-market approach,” Jaglom says. “At the end of the day no one cares about technology, they care about what solution you are offering to solve a given problem. We are applying jetting technology in AM to serve a need, specifically around performance, cost and customization, and that’s what is important. But how do we ensure our product-market fit is solid…that’s critical.”
To this end, flō is working with a few dozen experts and labs routinely to bridge this knowledge gap. Further, the company has already partnered up with leading industry players and continually seeks collaborations in order to ensure that they are bringing the best product possible to market.
“At the upcoming VisionExpo show in Las Vegas, we will display collaboration with a player in the ophthalmic industry known for a very specific lens coating. We are sharing this collaboration at the show, where the company brings flō its know-how and we bring our jetting ability to showcase how the same material can be jetted with our technology,” Jaglom tells VoxelMatters. “We invite others to do the same and approach us,” he adds.
Learning from the past
Jaglom also traces an interesting parallel between what happened at Stratasys and what will invariably happen at flō as the company works to bring a new technology to market, which is very innovative, very disruptive and mostly unknown.
“When I was giving sales training to the Stratasys Channel back in the day, I always gave the same analogy, which will be very fitting to flō,” Jaglom says. “In the early days, I used to explain that our sales team at Stratasys started with convincing our prospects of why they needed a car [car dealer analogy]. At the beginning of any discussion, there was no focus on one technology being better than another, it was purely about the values of 3D printing in its most general terms. Only later, after the prospect was convinced of the value of 3D printing, the discussions focused on us vs. competition in this space. The same will be said here when we start selling flō products. Questions will invariably arise about what is digital printing. Why is it beneficial? How can it help us the customer? Very strong arguments will need to be put in place (and they exist) to ensure that the transition from analog to digital is worth it for the customer.
I tell my team all the time, that as strong as our value proposition is, our go-to-market is going to be a challenging ride. The good thing is that this is not something new to me. My entire 12 years at Stratasys were mainly around go-to-market where new and disruptive technology was pushed forward. I expect the same at flō.
The business model will also be similar to Stratasys’. We will sell units (platforms) and the consumables that come with them. In this consumables-driven business model, the cost needs to be justifiable both for the platform costs and the material costs. The end goal is to bring a solution that is better and more cost-effective by leveraging advancements in the digitalization of manufacturing.
Our vision is to digitalize all things optical using additive manufacturing. And we’re very broad in that sense of ‘all things optical’. I think the commonality regardless of vertical that we will play in is in the ability to create coatings on lenses that have optical clarity and functionality, all whilst being curved. There are several different verticals that tap into that, including Medical, Automotive, Defense, and more. We have already partnered up with some seeking our solution in their vertical, given that our focus is very clearly on the ophthalmic industry. Those who would like to join us in this effort are highly encouraged to get in touch.”