Nate Higgins (ESTEEM '14)
When Nate Higgins graduated from ESTEEM in 2014, he had to choose between staying in South Bend where his capstone led to the launch of InVivo Concepts or returning to his native Pittsburgh. An offer from Alpha Sintered Metals (now APG Sintered Metals) proved irresistible – he could launch a startup metal injection molding facility inside a large corporation for all the fun of entrepreneurship without the financial stress or business infrastructure concerns. (InVivo Concepts, founded by Matt Leevy, director of the IDEA Center's Innovation Lab, is now a subsidiary of Somni Scientific.)
“They had nothing but a market they wanted to enter,” Higgins recalls. He started procuring equipment and developing a business plan, relying on his ESTEEM training. The firm eventually acquired a company in Cleveland that Higgins ran for 18 months before bringing it to Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, merging it with the startup, and launching a new company that grew from less than $1 million to more than $5 million between 2016 and 2020. He left in November 2020 to lead a new startup, FreeFORM Technologies, that is a contract manufacturer of metal 3D printed components, specifically focused on metal binder jet technology.
“I always still had this burn to start a company, to get back into additive manufacturing, to make parts you can’t traditionally make, like InVivo,” Higgins says. “The market was not ready the last six years. I got to be an entrepreneur again, operating in a space I’m familiar with.”
Metal binding jet technology lays down layers of powdered metal and ink, then heats the material to near the metal’s melting point so it welds into the finished part. The process has broad application in medical, defense, industrial, hand tool, aerospace, automotive, and other markets. “Our target customer is anyone inside of an engineering group who wants to iterate quickly, who has product in design phase not locked down, or who has an organic shape that can’t be traditionally made,” Higgins says.
FreeFORM has partnered with two equipment suppliers and is working on material development as well as product development. The firm received its first customer orders before the end of 2020 while continuing to procure equipment, develop applications, and engineer new products. It employs five founders.
“I walked this company through a lot of things I learned at ESTEEM,” Higgins says, such as developing a business plan and validating concepts. “I’m pretty much walking through that process right now of launching a company with everything I learned in the ESTEEM program and in launching InVivo Concepts, too. This time, it has to work, or I can’t feed my family.”