tales of a startup banner

Eric Shnell, Founder – Revolutionizing the DoD Supply Chain

A fresh Q&A series featuring ambassadors of innovation and technology, fueling entrepreneurship at UC San Diego and beyond


Manufacture. Anywhere.

For years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been struggling with 3D printers that are typically large, fragile, and complicated to run. Basement founded Craitor is the first 3D printer that fixes these issues and makes it possible to bring additive manufacturing into the field for military use.

Craitor is a rugged, portable 3D printer that is capable of being used in harsh environments (like at sea or in the field), adapting to the climate where it is deployed so soldiers do not have to be experts in printing to get a perfect part every time, winning accolades including Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, Founder’s Live San Diego and being selected for the Blackstone Launchpad Lift program powered by Techstars.

“I had always been interested in Aerospace and defense, growing up in a family connected to the Armed Forces,” recalls Shnell. “I had planned to go into West Point, but due to a medical condition was disqualified. Nevertheless, the opportunity to work in this space caught my eye.

Their simple yet versatile platform integrates machine learning to make printing safer and easier than alternatives on the market, spending the last year developing a network throughout the US Marine Corps, the Navy, and the Army customizing their technology to suit the needs of soldiers in the field.


What has been your experience with UC San Diego in developing a diverse entrepreneurial culture?

UC San Diego is unique compared to the other UCs. It’s a very collaborative atmosphere. I chose admission because of that. As an entrepreneur, it’s been even more apparent that’s one of the school’s strengths. People are very interested in what everyone else is doing and collaboration runs deep. As a Gordon Scholar, I have enjoyed the opportunity to improve as a leader but also learn invaluable lessons from my peers.

Additionally, The Basement was the first space Craitor really became a reality, a critical place for connection and networking. It has been invaluable to how we have grown. On the maker studio side, places like EnVision Maker Studio work to grow the Maker community and to provide opportunities for grassroots innovation. Once I graduate, these connections will remain.

What excites you about your work?

I love to know what other people are doing, hear their stories and find out how I can help. Problem solving is my passion, as well as improving quality of life for others. At Craitor, by talking to the Armed Forces to see issues of supply chain, we can more fully understand how technology can be modified and implemented to solve problems.

I’ve always had the personality and mentality for entrepreneurship, I just didn’t know that’s what I wanted. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to make an impact through leadership. It’s addicting, I love to see things grow. It requires you to put yourself out there. To see your company succeed, that’s the part that’s addicting!

 

"From the beginning, I knew I wanted to make an impact through leadership. It’s addicting, I love to see things grow. It requires you to put yourself out there."

 

Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?

A typical day is not typical. It’s very hard to have any kind of regime as a full-time student and founder. I wake up as early as possible and keep everything organized in a calendar and a to do list. Otherwise, it is mostly what you expect. I study like any other student, I take calls and send emails like you would expect from someone in a business, I work on R&D just like any other engineer, and I guide my team and look for opportunities to grow my company like what would be expected of any leader.

How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?

People see innovation in this very outdated view, i.e. building something that has never been thought of before. I think it’s more about taking those solutions and modifying them and putting them together in new ways.

As people talk more and more, as collaborations grows stronger through social media and travel, it is easier to make ideas into reality. How can we reshuffle ideas and make them entirely new? Of course, new discoveries are made every day that influence the progress and impact of innovation, but often it’s a lot less discovery-based innovation, more collaboration based that we see making an impact in our day to day.

What role have mentors played in your success/journey?

Mentorship has been monumental to our business, and my own personal growth. Your mentors can be anyone. I learn every day from my colleagues, my peers, and the various entrepreneurs and leaders on campus. Todd Forsman, who has supported Craitor from the very beginning, has been critical to our research and development with the DoD.

At the Gordon Center, Ebonee Williams has provided an incredible amount of guidance to help me grow as an engineering leader through the Gordon Scholars and Fellows programs, while indirectly helping me build Craitor to where it is now.

If I were to talk about everyone who had an impact on my journey so far, we would be here all day, and the list keeps growing, from Jesse Dewald at EnVision Maker Studio to George Eiskamp at The Basement and beyond.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?

You are really spoiled for choice at UC San Diego. Time management is one of the most difficult things I face daily. Doing everything I want to do versus putting something aside. It’s been one of the greatest learning experiences. I’m just one person. Building a startup is great but I still need to my pass my classes!

Craitor is in a very unique place - we aren’t your typical company for angel or VC investment, since we are an early hardware focused company with a lot of R/D. Yet we have the potential to go beyond the DoD. Just imagine the implication of our technology for something like disaster relief. A rugged 3D printer takes a while to build out – finding capital while remaining independent has been difficult, but we are making it, one step at a time.

"Don’t wait. While this may be the hardest time to start a company, it’s also the least risky time of your life.

It’s some of the best education you can receive. There is not a better time to do it."

What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?

Don’t wait. While this may be the hardest time to start a company, it’s also the least risky time of your life. It’s some of the best education you can receive. There is not a better time to do it.

If you fail, you are still going to graduate and will have a unique experience under your belt to differentiate you. Maybe this is the beginning of something. Inspiration can come from anywhere.


To learn more, visit Craitor or contact Shnell on LinkedIn.