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Chasing The Final Frontier

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From dreams of becoming an astronaut to developing a 3-D printer that reuses plastic trash, Samantha Snabes is a force to be reckoned with.

By Shelley Seale, Photos by Keith Trigaci, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Hair and Makeup by Laura Martinez, Shot on location at The Line Austin

For as long as she can remember, Samantha Snabes dreamed of being an astronaut. Throughout her childhood, she eagerly devoured any media she could about space and those who worked in the field. She went to every camp, seminar and clinic she could find to learn how to make that dream come true.

Proving her resourcefulness, even at a young age, Snabes obtained the names of working professional astronauts while attending her second space camp during high school. She then used the phone book to look up those who lived in her home state of Michigan.

“I called them at their house and said, ‘Hey, I want to be an astronaut. What do I have to do?’ ” she recalls. “I also received several introductions through the local Young Astronauts Club. When I met with the astronauts, they told me I had to go to college. They also told me I should pick a career in science—and that’s what I did.”

The determined young Snabes followed the path she had set for herself, later attending the University of Michigan–Dearborn and graduating in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in international studies and Hispanic studies and a minor in psychology. She then put herself through graduate school, obtaining a master’s degree with concentrations in supply-chain management and international business.

While she was still unwavering in her desire to become an astronaut, her science education spurred a deep interest in biosciences. Snabes worked as a research associate with Aastrom Biosciences while in college, and after graduation, she assisted with a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant-funded research project to build an artificial immune system using human stem cells grown from adult bone-marrow samples. She and her boss co-patented the outcome and obtained an exclusive worldwide license from Aastrom. In 2006, they co-founded a company called BioFlow Technology to commercialize the tissue-culture device.

BioFlow was acquired in 2009, and during the acquisition process, Snabes learned of an opportunity at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Working in the Space Life Sciences program, which focuses on the study of human health and performance in the space environment, Snabes was squarely at the intersection of her two loves: space and bioscience.

The team studied the toll the extreme conditions of outer space put on the human body, and worked to anticipate and address those risks for people in space flight. Innovation is a huge part of everything at NASA, and eventually, Snabes became a social-entrepreneur-in-residence, exploring how living and working in space could translate to social entrepreneurship. She also started volunteering with Engineers Without Borders, which taps the skills of engineers to overcome the challenges that keep the world’s poorest people from living healthy, productive lives.

“I always had a heart for seeing people be independent and have access to resources,” Snabes says. “I’ve always volunteered a lot, so when I heard about Engineers Without Borders, I got really excited about it. My peers I worked with at NASA were like-minded people who loved space and science, but also loved microfinance and to give back. They would volunteer at night, and we would use the conference room at our lunch hour or after work to prototype and build various projects for EWB.”

With EWB, Snabes traveled the globe working on projects, including making a stop in Rwanda. In 2011, she and co-worker Matthew Fiedler were volunteering at a hospital in Mugonero when they saw piles of medical and electrical equipment discarded out in the sun.

“These were $100,000 to $200,000 machines just sitting there,” Snabes recalls. “The gentleman who was translating explained that the equipment was unusable. I asked why, and he explained that because they are donations, often, they’re the wrong voltage, they’re not a cultural fit or they can’t be maintained. The list goes on.”

She and Fiedler talked about the useless equipment while sipping beers one night in Rwanda and started surmising how things could be different if the people there could just make their own equipment.

“I realized I would see or hear about these instances again and again,” Snabes says.“What we were learning when we were traveling is that people are inherently creative. They want to explore, they want to solve their own problems and they’re super motivated and capable.”

3-D printing was just getting popular and the maker movement with open-source printers was kicking off. Fiedler had been desktop printing in 3-D at home, and he and Snabes both used 3-D printers professionally at work. The two started to talk about what it would look like if people globally could 3-D print functional items.

“We both really believe in opportunity and locally driven manufacturing,” Snabes says. “We started thinking about what people would fabricate for themselves, and the solutions we were seeing through the organizations we were involved with was that those things needed to be bigger than 6 inches, [the norm for desktop 3-D printers]. We looked across the landscape, and there wasn’t an affordable printer that was large-scale.”

For the bioscience and engineering social entrepreneurs, the answer was simple: They would just have to make one themselves.

The affordable, large-scale 3-D printer that Snabes andFiedler worked to design would also serve two other much- needed functions in developing regions of the world: to recycle trash and provide for the ability to make usable items such as composting toilets. They enlisted other friends to join their team of creatives and makers to fashion a 3-D printer that could create composting toilets from recycled materials like milk jugs, plastic bags and other garbage.

“Millions of people lack access to toilets or latrines, and composting toilets boost hygiene without impacting water supplies and [create]fertilizer for better crop production,” Snabes explained in a video about the project. “But the traditional toilet systems are expensive and often require materials to be imported. This project provides for the rapid production of affordable, customized products where trash, toilet access and unemployment can be a huge problem.”

What if they could create such a toilet with a 3-D printer, and do so inexpensively while helping to solve other problems as well? Snabes and Fiedler were convinced this would be a win-win situation, and they also knew solutions managed by local community members themselves have the highest chances of success.

The team submitted their design for a 3-D printed toilet to the Jack Daniels Independence Project,which helps fund entrepreneurs’ passion projects with a $25,000 cash prize.

“We really wanted to win the $25,000,” Snabes says. “We also wanted to win the whiskey barrel [that came with the prize]. We were all fighting over that because we wanted to make furniture out of it.”

Snabes’ team finished as a finalist in the contest, which proved to them there really was a need for what they were developing.

“It wasn’t just our friends validating it anymore,” she says. “We weren’t intending necessarily to start a business; we were just wanting to solve a problem.”

Then they heard about Start-Up Chile, an initiative in the South American country that identifies and supportscustomer-validated and scalable companies that will leave a lasting impact on the Latin American ecosystem. The program provides equity-free startup funds, as well as access to investors, training and mentors. It seemed like the perfect incubator to submit their idea.

“The next thing we knew, we received a letter stating we were being awarded $40,000 to start a company, and I was moving to Santiago,” Snabes says. “Start-Up Chile made it seem like it was really a business. It became very real for me and Matthew.”

Both of them quit their jobs to work full time on their new company, called re:3D, and Snabes moved to Chile in January 2013 for seven months.

“We didn’t have any other funding or a prototype,” Snabes says. “I showed up in Santiago with just an idea in my head.”

Back in Texas, another hotbed for innovation was approaching in March: the South By Southwest festival in Austin. Snabes and Fiedler knew they could have a chance at tremendous startup impact if they could get their prototype to SXSW in time.

“We were dubious it could be done in time, just eight weeks away,” Snabes says. “But Matthew was adamant.”

At his home in Houston, Fiedler assembled the fledging enterprise’s first technology component, the Gigabot, which would provide industrial-strength, large-format 3-D printing at an affordable price point. There was just one problem: The prototype was too big to fit through Fiedler’s door. So, he had to disassemble it, transport it to Austin and reassemble it live on the carpet of the SXSW exhibit hall. But it was done and set up at the booth in time for the opening of the festival. Simultaneously, Snabes was in Santiago putting together a Kickstarter campaign aimed to launch at the same time the Gigabot made its world debut in Austin.

“It was like the perfect storm,” she says. “We timed it so that the campaign started right when the booth opened at South By Southwest.”

It was a hit. The Kickstarter campaign was funded to its $40,000 goal within 27 hours, quickly surpassing that goal and eventually raising more than a quarter of a million dollars. A story in TechCrunch helped get the word out about the new technology, and suddenly, re:3D was a major player, with orders coming in from throughout the world.

“We went really quickly from idea to product, selling globally,” Snabes says. “We were suddenly in 20 countries, selling to strangers. We then had to find a way to bootstrap a factory.”

re:3D has continued to grow rapidly, with a goal to completely disrupt the 3-D printer industry with its innovative method of using plastic waste as the input. Snabes says this also allows for a 30 percent increase in printing speed, as well as a significant reduction in manufacturing costs, compared with the current method of printing from plastic filament.

“We are hoping to make 3-D printing a commercial reality in two years. We also seek to empower 500 jobs in five years,” she says.

Currently, the company employs a staff of more than 20 and has seen success in selling its Gigabots to organizations such as MD Anderson Cancer Center, as well as continuing social- and community-development projects. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, a local software-development startup called ALQMY used Gigabot to 3-D print a prototype and design walkie-talkie-like products that operate on a low-band frequency network and were uniquely capable of functioning in post-hurricane conditions. 3-D printing gave the team access to the technology needed to create products quickly and rapidly prototype working devices. The devices were able to create a decentralized wireless network without having to depend on the decimated infrastructure and had the capability to connect people within 1.5 miles, letting them send SMS communications and share GPS information. Puerto Ricans were able to coordinate allocating petroleum for those in need, bringing food to one another and connecting with loved ones about their ongoing living conditions and safety.

In the medical arena, re:3D technology is being used to printcasts and prosthetics. The company donated a Gigabot to global volunteer network e-Nable to build prosthetic hands out of 3-D printed parts for young children throughout the world, and also sends the parts so kids and parents can participate in the building themselves. A prosthetic hand can be printed for as little as $30 and dramatically change a child’s life. Recently, e-Nable added a mechanically driven arm design to its collection, called the RIT Arm, which requires no electricity to operate.

“It’s been really rewarding to serve people in these countries globally,” Snabes says. “I think every day is a choice and an opportunity, and that’s why it’s so important to me to bring opportunity to other people. Watching our new teammates make 3-D their own and define the future of 3-D printing has really impressed me.”

re:3D’s Gigabots are also used for archaeological research projects. Southwestern Adventist University Dinosaur Science Museum and Research Center in Keene, Texas, has accumulated more than 20,000 dinosaur bones, which staff recreate by 3-D printing with the Gigabot to build full-scale models of the dinosaurs without being destructive to the actual bones, which also enables them to keep doing research on the bones.

Snabes went back to Jack Daniels, entering the Gentleman JackPitch Distilled competition in 2017. The multicity competition has a live-pitch component, with competitors pitching in front of a diverse cast of judges tasked with helping kick-start the next big idea. Snabes’ presentation in San Francisco garnered re:3D the first-place prize. She and Fiedler used the $5,000 prize money to help fund a prototype of a new 3-D printer, expanding the Gigabot’s capabilities. The new prototype can print on more materials than a traditional 3-D printer, cutting costs dramatically—and making a bigger dent in that huge pile of trashed plastic, the purposeful reuse of which is part of the company’s mission.

The company’s biggest score to date came in January, when Snabes’ presentation at the WeWork Creator Awards in New York garnered re:3D the top-place finish and a check for $1 million. Snabes was so stunned that when the announcement came that she won, she fell to her knees.

“We couldn’t be more honored to have WeWork as a partner,” she says. “Not only did they provide the resources to bring our big idea to life, they connected us with a community and a team that continues to inspire us daily.”

And what about her astronaut dreams? Well, they haven’t died. Snabes has applied three times to the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program, which opens only every few years and receives as many as 17,000 applications when it does. She’s done everything from becoming a certified EMT and volunteer firefighter to joining the Mississippi Air National Guard in hopes of improving her chances for selection.

“If I say I want to be an astronaut but I don’t apply, then I’m not serious. Maybe someday I’ll get lucky or the stars will align, no pun intended,” Snabes jokes. “Because I wanted to be an astronaut, I had big dreams, and those kinds of dreams can take you places and open up a lot of doors and possibilities.”

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