Business

Eastern Iowa entrepreneurs, inventors have support system

3D printed prototypes, manufacturing available

A 3-D printer uses plastic resin to print a version of the Pins eject a Power Perch charging shelf featuring a horizontal outlet cover opening at BeraTek Industries, 407 Ninth Avenue SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec.14, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A 3-D printer uses plastic resin to print a version of the Pins eject a Power Perch charging shelf featuring a horizontal outlet cover opening at BeraTek Industries, 407 Ninth Avenue SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec.14, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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When Tom Lutz was seeking to get a prototype created for his Repour Smart Stopper for wine, he turned to BeraTek Industries in Cedar Rapids.

“BeraTek is a company with a business philosophy of providing full service from start-up to product manufacturing,” Lutz said. “You might have an idea and they can help you with design, prototyping, manufacturing, fulfillment and shipping.”

Inside the Repour Smart Stopper is an oxygen absorber approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which absorbs any oxygen in the bottle.

“With oxygen effectively removed from the bottle (and the wine), degradation is prevented and the original aroma and taste of the wine is preserved,” Lutz said. “We did four prototypes with BeraTek before we did a single-cavity (plastic injection) mold, which allowed us to get 100 parts made and validate function.

“We’re doing a 16-cavity mold to bring it to full-scale production. We’re shooting for having our product in places like the First Avenue Wine House in February.”

Gerald Beranek, president and founder of BeraTek Industries, is a mechanical engineer with product design experience. He faced a daunting challenge when he was ready to bring his own products to market.

“I developed and designed my products for plastic injection molding,” Beranek said. “I had all of my products quoted for tooling and every tool had a 10- to 12-week lead time, which was crazy to me. The total price for the tooling was about $300,000.

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“One of the tools was $50,000, and to get the product price where I needed it, I would have had to order a pretty large volume. With a new product to sell, that might leave me with a lot of unsold inventory in my garage.”

For that kind of money, Beranek decided he could buy all the machines he would need and do the manufacturing himself.

Beranek had used 3D printers in his home to create prototypes of each product. The 3D printing process builds an object by adding successive thin horizontal layers of material roughly the thickness of a human hair.

Beranek’s initial product, the VuSee Universal Baby Monitor Shelf, sold on Etsy and eBay, attracted 100 orders in the first month.

Bringing other products to market, including the Hold and Go Slow Cooker with a single handle that locks the lid and prevents spills, Beranek began to get noticed by other entrepreneurs.

“I was traveling around to trade shows and people were always asking where I got my stuff made,” he said. “I had stacks of business cards last year from people wanting me to take on their projects.

“Finally I thought, ‘This is really a good opportunity, but I probably won’t be able to do my own products for a while.’”

BeraTek Industries, with about 10 employees, has clients that sell everything from scalpel holders to prevent potential injury in operating rooms to electrical outlet covers that prevent critical power cords from being accidentally unplugged.

Curt Nelson, president and CEO of the Entrepreneurial Development Center in Cedar Rapids, said BeraTek Industries is part of an entrepreneurial support system that includes 3D printing for prototypes and contract manufacturing of metal and plastic products.

“Mark Ginsberg at M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art in Iowa City can create 3D printed prototypes in metal or plastic,” Nelson said. “I hooked Mark up with Dr. Jim Levett, a cardiothoracic surgeon in Cedar Rapids. You can see an abnormal heart on a scan, but you’re really not going to know how to deal with it until you get inside.

“Mark figured out how to use the scans to create the heart in plastic outside the body. A surgeon can practice on the plastic heart, and if he needs a special surgical tool to operate, Mark can create it.”

When entrepreneurs are ready to get their product manufactured, Nelson said there are plenty of options available.

“We have about 17 companies in Eastern Iowa that do plastic injection molding,” Nelson said. “We also have companies like Barnes Manufacturing Services in Marion that can handle production of metal products.”

In May, the Iowa Economic Development Authority announced a $1.5 million grant for Protostudios, a cutting-edge biomedical and electronics prototyping hub. Located in the Merge collaborative space on the west side of the Iowa City Public Library building in downtown Iowa City, the facility — set to open in the first quarter of 2017 — will support small businesses and train students at the University of Iowa.

Daniel Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development, said the IEDA grant paved the way for installation of 3D modeling software and hardware, prototyping and electronics equipment and workspace to support the development of everything from biomedical devices to wearable technology.

“We are not trying to get into the manufacturing business,” Reed said. “We’re trying to provide an initial or early stage prototype and then connect people to the manufacturing ecosystem that exists in the state.

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“We want to keep the job in Iowa, rather than see a biomedical device made in another state.”

In the biomedical industry, he noted, “you need FDA approval before you can sell anything. The first thing that the FDA asks for is a prototype.

“Merge is a partnership of the University of Iowa, the Iowa City Area Development Group, the city of Iowa City and the state of Iowa to move that process forward.”

Reed said the University of Northern Iowa’s TechWorks can handle 3D printing of large metal pieces. Iowa State University also has complimentary 3D printing capability for prototyping, he said.

A prototyping lab with a 3D printer will be part of the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative housed in Geonetric’s headquarters. The lab will be available to those with a membership in the Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space in NewBoCo.

Eric Engelmann, executive director of NewBoCo and founder and board chairman of Geonetric, said the 3D printer will be able to make prototypes on a small scale.

Although access to 3D printing for prototypes and contract manufacturing for finished products is critical for entrepreneurs, Lutz said a supportive environment also is important.

“One of the things I have found really supportive here is the entrepreneurial community,” he said. “It seems like everyone that I’ve met here has a philosophy of ‘How can I help you? What do you need, Tom?’

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“That’s been incredibly supportive as I have tried to get a product to market.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; george.ford@thegazette.com

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