3D Molecular Designs builds a business on science

Made in Milwaukee


3D Molecular Designs LLC

1050 N. Market St., Suite CC130A, Milwaukee

Industry: Scientific models

Employees: 10 full-time, up to 35 part-time

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The advent of lower-cost 3D printers in recent years has led to plenty of predictions about growth opportunities for businesses using additive manufacturing, but a family business based at Milwaukee School of Engineering has been steadily building a business with the technology for nearly two decades. 

Tim Herman started Milwaukee-based 3D Molecular Designs LLC in 1999 after joining MSOE to start the Center for BioMolecular Modeling. The company has grown to about $1.6 million in annual revenue and has yet to take a loan, supporting operations through internal investments and $1.9 million in National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research grants.

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Heather Ryan with Tim and Diane Herman and examples of 3D-printed models.

Herman started his career as a faculty member at the Medical College of Wisconsin and began collaborating with MSOE researchers in the 1990s. They developed a model of the green fluorescent protein, took it to a conference and found researchers were more excited about the model than they were.

“That’s what really convinced me that there was something valuable here,” Herman said.

Today, the company has two main business lines. It makes custom models of cutting-edge proteins and other molecular structures for researchers, including five models recently for a traveling Nobel Museum exhibit. The other half of the business makes kits and models for educational settings. The original plan was to focus on custom models for researchers and do some work for teachers, but the education side has grown to as much as 90 percent of the business.

Making custom models still remains an important part of 3D Molecular, Herman said, pointing out that it gives the company a chance to work with cutting-edge researchers and help them make their science more accessible.

“That’s really the power of these physical tools,” said Heather Ryan, director of operations. “It allows the expert to communicate what they’re doing with the novice.”

The educational kits 3D Molecular makes range from water molecules to amino acids to DNA strands. The company has been able to build a national reputation with teachers through science education conferences, having the kits included in programs like Project Lead The Way and conducting years of field trials before taking products to market.

“We’re trying to make the most accurate model we can that will convey important concepts at the most affordable price,” said Diane Herman, Tim’s wife and a partner and vice president in the company.

Most of 3D Molecular Designs’ products – about 50 to 60 percent – are made through injection molding, either in-house or through outside vendors. Another 15 percent of the products are made with 3D printing, while foam and poster products make up the rest.

The company has 10 full-time staffers and hires up to 35 MSOE students for part-time work each year to help with assembly and production. Since 2010, 3D Molecular has operated from about 4,000 square feet of leased space in the school’s campus center, but the plan is to move to a larger facility later this year to accommodate growth.

Examples of the 3D-printed models made by 3D Molecular Designs.

Ryan, who is also Tim and Diane’s daughter, said the company plans to move into a roughly 12,000-square-foot space and has a couple of locations identified. She said the goal is to stay in close proximity to MSOE to continue working with students.

“Their availability matches up very well with the demand from our customers,” she said, noting the company ran three shifts of students working full-time over the summer ahead of the start of the school year and can offer flexible hours during the school year.

The move will also allow 3D Molecular to add new injection molding equipment, a $300,000 investment partially funded by a crowdfunding campaign. The new equipment will allow the company to release a new dynamic DNA model that will allow students to untwist the double helix and separate pieces.

Whether it’s the mass-produced products or the detailed custom models, the company isn’t concerned about the potential for falling 3D printer prices to lead to customers making their own models.

“The labor in designing the model and finishing the model is the biggest cost,” Diane said.

The continuing evolution of the technology does present a challenge, however.

“One of the most difficult things for us is to learn enough about the new technologies as they become available so that we can make good decisions … so that two or three years down the road we’ve invested in the right technology,” Tim said.

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