Bradley Rothenberg, cofounder and CEO of nTopology, is building next generation design software that relies on mathematical computations to create 3D-printed parts and products that are lighter and more efficient than would be possible with older CAD systems. As 3D printing takes hold as a means for mass production in industries like aerospace, automotive and healthcare, his New York City-based startup expects revenue to more than triple this year, to $5 million, up from $1.5 million in 2019.
That’s still tiny, of course, but the market for this type of cloud-based generative design software is growing so fast that in June – six months earlier than expected and despite the pandemic – nTopology raised $42 million led by Insight Partners at a valuation of $140 million. The fresh capital will help nTopology, which has 82 employees, expand as industries including aerospace, automotive and healthcare adopt 3D printing for future products, such as electric vehicles.
“We’re the toolmakers behind the scenes enabling this whole industry to work,” says Rothenberg, 35.
The startup’s cloud-based software, which costs roughly $5,000 per user per year, has been used to redesign brackets for space satellites, to make more efficient spinal cages for back surgery and to rapidly create nasal swabs for Covid-19 testing during the pandemic, among other uses. Customers include Lockheed Martin (which is also an investor), Raytheon, BMW, Daimler, Trek Bikes, NASA and Lightforce Orthodontics.
As manufacturers turn to 3D printing to produce parts and products at mass scale, nTopology is part of an emerging industry of next-generation design software that includes products from Autodesk, Dassault Systemes’ Solidworks and PTC’s Frustum. The advanced computations in nTop’s software allow it to create structures that are hollowed out or have lattice designs that could only be created with 3D printers, yet are as strong and as functional as heavier, clunkier designs.
“The advantage is that you can create impossible geometries that you cannot create in CAD,” says Chris Prucha, founder of 3D printing startup Origin, who first met Rothenberg in 2015 and worked with nTopology software on the nasal swabs project. “I think nTopology is the first to take all these generative design ideas and put a package together that is successful.”
Rothenberg, who has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Pratt Institute, got the idea for nTopology while working as a consultant to Lockheed Martin. While there, he had immersed himself in the design difficulties of making complex parts and co-authored a paper for SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics, on the “optomechanical performance of 3D-printed mirrors with embedded cooling channels and substructures.”
In simple terms, the problem, as he explains, is that the original CAD software, which was designed to replace drafting and drawing in the 1960s, has been surpassed by today’s engineering complexity. CAD software works in 2D, representing objects as a mesh of smaller polygons that extrapolates out to 3D for manufacturing, rather than designing in three dimensions. What that means is that factors like strength and thermodynamics aren’t factored in, resulting in designs that need to build in a large safety net. For engineers the impact of switching to nTopology’s design software is that they no longer need to overcompensate or spend weeks or even months redoing a design to make it workable.
“We’re the toolmakers behind the scenes enabling this whole industry to work,” says nTopology’s Bradley Rothenberg.
Rothenberg cofounded nTopology with Greg Schroy, managing director of early-stage fund Locke Mountain Ventures, in 2015. The name nTopology is a play on the word topology, a mathematical term for the study of geometric properties or spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures.
With nTop software, equations represent a 3D solid—from any point in space, it can query the exact distance to its shape—allowing for more complicated parts. These include the lattice structures and foams that are common in 3D printing as well as higher-performance designs for forged parts.
The idea was inspired, but it took time to get the software to work. Prucha, a former Apple engineer, recalls how Rothenberg came by Origin’s office to show off an early iteration of the software. “It was literally a mess. It was all these amazing ideas, but the interface was inconsistent and hard to use,” he recalls. “After an hour we all nodded and talked about how great it was, but we had no idea how to use the software because it was so complicated.”
Since then, Rothenberg and his team have refined the software and made it easy to use, gaining customers in aerospace and defense, medical and consumer products. nTopology and Origin are now part of a team competing in the Air Force’s advanced manufacturing olympics challenge to redesign a type of clamp used in its F-16 fighter aircraft.
Meanwhile, in consumer products, Trek Bikes has begun using nTopology’s software in its research and development efforts. “We use a lot of CAD now, but…it just gets bogged down the more intricate you get,” says Alan Baryudin, an accessories engineer at Trek’s Bonrager brand. While Baryudin declined to talk about specific research projects he’s working on, he noted that 3D printing could enable bike makers to produce lighter, more aerodynamic designs or to manufacture personalized products that are a custom fit for each rider. “We’re using nTopology as a tool to get in the game,” he says.
Rothenberg expects that nTopology’s revenue could triple again next year as it rolls out to more customers and expands the number of users for its software at its existing customers. While manufacturing output has slowed at some of the industries it serves, there’s been no slowdown in research and development efforts for future products, Rothenberg says. In fact, he says, he’s seeing the biggest growth among automotive and aerospace customers.
“We’ll land an account with one or two or four users, and then we’ll scale up rapidly in that account,” he says. “In some accounts we double users each quarter; in some we add three or four users a month.” And he’s not expecting that to slow down anytime soon.