At 25 years old, Oliver Brossmann is pretty young when it comes to being an entrepreneur. He’s also young to have already suffered from tendonitis in both knees. But without the latter he might not have become the former.
Brossmann grew up in Seattle and dreamed as a kid of of becoming a professional soccer player. But his body defied his passion early on, and in high school he required surgery on both knees. He was sidelined for a year and despite playing again eventually, he was never going to go pro.
During the time he was recovering, Brossmann started to embrace a more minimalist approach to running and exercise — and what he was and wasn’t putting on his feet. He came across the best-selling book “Born to Run” and tried running barefoot as well as in Vibram’s hot-at-the-time FiveFinger running shoes.
“I really felt a difference on my knees. I felt like I could run without pain, where before any running was difficult,” Brossmann said. “While that happened I think I stumbled upon an article in The Economist on 3D printing and how it’s the future of manufacturing.”
The reality and the dream merged in Brossmann’s mind: he would create a solution to combat his own physical limitation.
While studying business at Bellevue College, Brossmann did manage to play one year of soccer. He transferred to Seattle University to study accounting and economics and he tossed in a couple computer science classes along with a prototyping class. Figuring he was going to pursue his business idea, he dropped out of SU with a couple quarters needed to graduate and went to work for a startup to get a glimpse of that life. A few months later, in July 2014, he quit to start Prevolve.
On Saturday, three years after that leap of faith, Brossmann officially launched the company’s first product, the BioRunners, from a warehouse space in the shadow of the Ballard Bridge in Seattle.
The shoes are created on the BioFusion Platform, a 3D printing technology for custom athletic footwear that Brossmann developed. The BioRunners are a custom fit running shoe and the marketing tagline states that they’re “designed to empower the human body from the feet up.”
So how did a soccer-playing kid with knee problems drop out of college with a couple computer science credits under his belt and manage to create a startup that designs and engineers made-to-fit 3D-printed shoes?
“For six or seven months I didn’t really make any headway. I was pretty frustrated for a while,” Brossmann said.
But he found a software solution in Grasshopper, a program that runs within the Rhino CAD application. “It’s an open-source program, and it’s got a really healthy community online. I stumbled upon it and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s much more flexible and intuitive for programming in 3D. I just learned that and progressively the designs have gotten better.”
Coupled with a professional foot scanner that is producing more accurate scans, Brossmann said the product is getting better with every iteration. Soccer shoe prototypes and running shoe prototypes and colorful plastic castoffs fill bins around his studio space.
The shoes are printed from spools of thermoplastic polyurethane, a material which Brossmann calls durable and resistant to abrasion. The Prevolve website allows for full customization, letting customers choose fit, color, thickness of cushion, and tread — for trail or road running.
The simple, slip-on design is reminiscent of Crocs, if only because the shoes are plastic and come in an array of colors. The $195 price point for BioRunners certainly sets them apart from that ubiquitous shoe, often seen on gardeners and people who have to take out the trash.
“I think they do look really new and different, people don’t really know what to think about them,” Brossmann said. “They’re definitely unique and it partially depends on what your foot looks like. The shape definitely changes from one person to another. I’m still thinking about the design and what will make it more attractive to people but ultimately it’s about the performance.”
Brossmann believes performance is enhanced by a truly custom shoe. And there are real hours in the individual foot scanning of customers and creation of each pair. A Prevolve shoe, depending on size, can take about 20 to 30 hours to print on one of Brossmann’s in-house machines.
“It really is the future of how we’re going to buy products. Everything is going to be tailored to us,” he said. “What I realized is people’s feet are just so different. It’s crazy. Every person I scan they have something unique about their feet, and it’s been a process to create the software that can deal with that.”
As far as competitors in the space, a company called Feetz is attempting to reach consumers with an approach that’s a little different than foot scanning. Through its app, the company works off three pictures of each foot, taken by the person who needs the shoes. Calling itself The Digital Cobbler, Feetz says its robots custom size and 3D print the footwear before humans assemble them.
But what about the big shoe companies? It seems like Nike and Adidas, with their vast resources, should have beaten Brossmann out of the 3D starting blocks, if you will.
“I wondered why they weren’t doing it five years ago,” Brossmann said. “I wanted Nike to be doing it — I want those shoes. And that’s how I got here — they aren’t doing it. For me, that’s what I wanted Prevolve to be all about, the ultimate customization.”
A closer look at The BioRunners. Our process starts with the collection of your biometrics. Using optical lasers, our scanner 3D images your feet. Our BioFusion Platform automatically generates a shoe perfectly tailored to your feet… your right and left will be slightly different, just as your feet are! Lastly, the code sent to our 3D printers consists of millions of points of data, so that the shoe prints perfectly for your feet. Each layer of material is thinner that the width of a hair, creating a smooth, detailed, and strong surface. You can learn more about our process on our website, and pre-order your BioRunners today! ⠀ Photo: @kristamarienelson⠀ .⠀ .⠀ #prevolve #biorunner #running #3dprinting #shoes #technology #seattle #startup
Brossmann said the big companies are starting to add 3D printing into their product lines, but for the most part it doesn’t make sense for their business models.
“They produce the shoes very cheaply and they’re distributing them to retailers across the U.S. and the world. It’s cheap for them to make shoes when it’s the same shoe 30,000 times. They can spend their money on their marketing.”
When it comes to his money, Prevolve is mostly bootstrapped right now, and has a small angel investment. The startup is just Brossmann, a couple part time employees and his sister, who is helping with operational stuff.
But with his own creation on his feet and his business getting off the ground with its first product, Brossmann is definitely happy to be up and running.