Samantha Snabes: “Developing The Infrastructure To Print From Waste Is A Really F-Ing Hard Problem”

 Samantha Snabes [Source: Women in 3D Printing]
Samantha Snabes [Source: Women in 3D Printing]

Samantha Snabes is the CEO for re:3D where she facilitates connections between others printing at the human-scale and/or using recycled materials to access locally-driven manufacturing in 50+ countries. 

As a serial entrepreneur, she currently volunteers as the Global Chair of the IEEE Entrepreneurship Steering Committee. Previously, she served as the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the NASA HQ and Deputy Strategist supporting the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Directorate after selling a start-up for a DARPA-funded, co-patented tissue culture device. Samantha holds a BS in Biology, BA degrees in International Relations & Hispanic Studies, an MBA with concentrations in Supply Chain Management & International Relations, and certifications as a firefighter & EMT-B.

Nora Toure: Samantha, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place? 

Samantha Snabes: For as long as I can remember, I dreamt of being an astronaut. Throughout childhood, I went to every camp, seminar, and clinic to learn how to make that dream come true.  Using internet searches I obtained the names of working professional astronauts. I 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?’. 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. I later attended the University of Michigan–Dearborn, graduating 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. I then went to graduate school, obtaining a master’s degree with concentrations in supply-chain management and international business.

While still unwavering in the desire to become an astronaut, my science education spurred an interest in biosciences. After some astronauts suggested I needed research experience,  I started working as a research associate with Aastrom Biosciences while in college and 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. My boss and I co-patented the outcome and obtained an exclusive worldwide license from Aastrom. In 2006, we co-founded a company called BioFlow Technology to commercialize the tissue-culture device.

BioFlow was acquired in 2009 during the recession, and during the acquisition process, I learned of an opportunity at Johnson Space Center in Houston to be a strategist supporting the Space Life Sciences program, which focuses on the study of human health and performance in the space environment. Innovation is a huge part of everything at NASA, and eventually, I became a social-entrepreneur-in-residence, exploring how living and working in space could translate to social entrepreneurship. I also had been 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, and volunteered a lot, so when I heard about Engineers Without Borders- NASA Johnson Space Center, I got really excited. The peers I worked with at NASA were like-minded people who loved space and science, and giving back. We would volunteer at night after work, and we would use the conference room at JSC at our lunch hour or after work to prototype and build various projects for EWB.

With EWB- NASA JSC I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda. In 2011, myself and co-worker Matthew Fiedler were visiting a hospital in Mugonero when we saw piles of medical and electrical equipment discarded out in the sun. $100,000 to $200,000 machines were just sitting there. 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.

Matthew and I talked about the useless equipment and started surmising how things could be different if the people there could just make their own tools. We would see or hear about similar situations again and again. 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. Matthew had been desktop printing at home, and he and I had both used 3-D printers professionally at work. We 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. 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.

To us, the answer was simple: They would just have to make one themselves.  The affordable, large-scale 3-D printer that we proposed 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. We enlisted other friends to join a movement to create a 3-D printer that could create composting toilets from recycled materials like milk jugs, plastic bags and other garbage.

The dimensions for the proposed printer were built around a composting toilet as an extreme example of a functional object a large scale 3D printer could produce with the hope of enabling local problem solvers to innovate independently.  We submitted their design for a 3-D printed toilet to the Jack Daniels Independence Project in 2012 ,which was intended to fund entrepreneurs’ passion projects with a $25,000 cash prize.

We really wanted to win the $25,000. 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. Our team finished as a finalist in the contest, which proved to us that there really was a need for what they were developing.  It wasn’t just our friends validating the idea anymore. We weren’t intending necessarily to start a business; we were just wanting to solve a problem.

Read the rest at Women in 3D Printing

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