Nick Shepherd of GLW Technologies helps inventors shoot for the moon
In this new feature, local economy reporter Natalie Yahr gets “In Your Business” with local entrepreneurs, discovering how they got where they are and what’s driving them now.
Nick Shepherd started inventing early. By fourth grade, the Milwaukee native was was posing for a newspaper photo with a cardboard mockup he’d created of a self-driving lawn mower.
But as the young inventor continued designing, cardboard wasn’t cutting it. He wanted to begin building with plastic, the go-to material for manufacturing, but soon discovered he’d need to buy a mold for injection molding, a set-up that could cost around $100,000.
“It’s so expensive, it’s almost impossible for anyone, especially someone who is an 18-year-old guy, to have access to those kinds of resources,” Shepherd said. “It really stymied my ability to invent and create.”
It was at Sector67, a makerspace on Madison’s east side makerspace, that Shepherd, then a college student, found a solution: 3D printing.
Two decades later, Shepherd owns more than 40 3D printers and makes a living by eliminating that barrier for other inventors. His 3D printing company, GLW Technologies, provides design services, rapid prototyping and short-run manufacturing, helping startups and established businesses to quickly turn designs into objects.
The company wasn’t always focused on 3D printing. When Shepherd launched GLW around 2013 as part of a University of Wisconsin-Madison sustainability competition, he was a microbiology undergrad growing algae to turn into biofuels in his 12th floor Langdon Street apartment. The endeavor proved unsuccessful, leaving Shepherd with a ruined carpet and a security deposit to pay.
But today, the company is laser focused on 3D printing, GLW attracts clients looking to sign million dollar deals. Last fall, GLW expanded production from its New Glarus home base to a spot at the Janesville Innovation Center, a hub for entrepreneurship and technology.
The company’s short-run manufacturing service allows start-ups to begin production even if they can’t yet afford to produce several thousand units. To qualify, the business must know what it plans to build and for whom, and the idea should be “innovative, fun/cool, or otherwise uplift humanity in some way,” according to the online request form.
Among those ideas is a solar-powered water purification system in the lid of a water bottle, designed by Roving Blue, a company based in Lena, Wisconsin. At the push of a button, the device uses ozone to disinfect water, making any water drinkable within minutes.
“We didn’t invent that,” Shepherd said, but GLW’s 3D printing technology meant the business could start small before scaling up. “We helped them get their first 50 units so they can start changing the world.”
Shoot for the moon
Shepherd has also turned his tools and training toward the coronavirus pandemic. When supply shortages threatened to leave frontline workers like his mom and wife without the equipment they’d need to protect themselves, Shepherd worked with a team of local makers to design and fabricate 3D respirator masks. Now they’re working with biotech company Baseline Global, which is seeking FDA approval for a patent-pending medical device designed to use biomarkers in saliva to test for health conditions including COVID-19, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 brought major wins for GLW. The company’s design of a versatile drone frame that can accommodate a variety of attachments won a Defense Innovation award from Tech Connect, a pipeline connecting innovations to clients and funders. The project’s modular design means the same frame can be adapted for everything from delivering lunch or surveying disaster damage to reseeding coral reefs or spraying crops, simply by 3D printing the necessary attachments.
That could dramatically reduce the cost to use commercial drones, whose price tags often range from $30,000 to $70,000, he said. Just as cars didn’t take off until Henry Ford devised cheaper production methods, Shepherd thinks a price drop could change the game.
“The big thing is having an open source, affordable thing,” he said. “We’re using 3D printing technology to do something that’s never been done before.”
GLW’s work will soon reach new heights — literally. The company 3D printed the suspension systems for Colorado-based aerospace company Lunar Outpost, which was recently awarded a contract to bring back moon samples.
“So, hopefully within the next four years, our company will have parts on the moon.”
The four questions
What are the most important values driving your work?
The biggest one is invention is not an option, it’s a requirement. I think the biggest difference I’ve seen between companies that are struggling in 2020 and the ones that are exploding is their ability to embrace new innovation and see that it’s not just something that is for some companies — it’s for all of us.
How are you creating the kind of community that you want to live in?
Everything we do is about building a new world that’s cleaner, and by cleaner I mean less pollution, more automation and more equity. We’re enabling new technologies to build a better future for all of humanity, whether it’s using drone technology to increase efficiency in crop production, or logistics systems so that we can create better transitions in a post-COVID world or helping small businesses enable their ideas to function. We love working with companies with innovative technology that has positive effects in the world, and that’s really our core focus.
What advice do you have for other would-be entrepreneurs?
Patience and persistence are the most important thing to entrepreneurship. People aren’t more successful than you are, they’re just more persistent longer until they are. There’s no magical formula. I wasn’t a straight A student in school. You don’t need to have vast resources. It’s just about patience, persistence and making great connections through building great personal relationships. Find something that people really need, and then relate it to something that you’re very passionate about, because at the end of the day, if you’re not passionate about it, you’re never gonna stick with it.
Are you hiring?
Yes. We’re always looking for people. We understand that 3D printing is a very narrow field, so we’re (willing) to train. We’re really looking to grow pretty big here in 2021.