Northside Innovation Conference: What We Learned From MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis

Tech Features

Bre Pettis is everything you might have wanted to be when you were a kid. He’s worked at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop as an assistant, he’s made geeky TV shows, and he wears boss sweaters all the time. Also, in 2009, Pettis co-founded MakerBot Industries, a 3D-printer manufacturing company, which was acquired by Stratasys Incorporated a few years later for $604 million in stock and performance-based earn-outs.


On Thursday, Pettis took the stage at the Northside Innovation Conference, where he was interviewed by Fortune tech writer Erin Griffith. The interview covered the stuff you’d expect from a talk with Pettis, from how life at MakerBot has been since the acquisition to what the future holds for 3D-printing. But Pettis, being the curious scientist and able raconteur, was also wont to drop a whole lot of interesting stories, information, and insights.

Here are the five that most caught my ear:

1. The biggest customers of 3D-printing thus far are in the realm of space rocket manufacturing, including the NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. “For whatever reason,” said Pettis, “Space is big.”

2. A MakerBot 3D printers once exploded with strawberry jam. “The downside of strawberry jam on toast is the little seeds in it,” Pettis explained. “They block up the nozzle, and the pressure built up and it exploded strawberry jam almost in an exact, evenly-distributed blast zone over the entire room. Until today there are some keyboards that don’t work.”

3. Speaking of food, there was once an idea pitched around the office of printing the news on toast. Pettis: “We did this whole thing where we were 3D-printing the news on toast. Yeah, I don’t know. It seemed like one of those weird applications where we were like, ‘Dude, what if we could 3D-print the news on toast and we could just eat the weather before we could go outside’?”

4. On the subject of advertising, Pettis holds a laid-back disposition. While MakerBot has done some ads on YouTube, he’s not sure about whether they’re useful—but they do sure feel good. Nevertheless, he has a more organic way of getting write-ups: “Before I started MakerBot, I was creating cool stuff and sharing it with the Internet. That’s how I knew all the folks at BoingBoing, at Engadget and Gizmodo… because I would go out drinking with them all the time. That’s what we do in New York. That’s the beauty of living in New York City is that a good chunk of the media is here and willing to drink with you. Or whatever.”

Still waiting on that drink, man.

5. And now for a really fascinating prediction: Pettis suspects the self-driving car might rapidly propel the development of the biological material 3D-printing space. Why? Because less car accidents leads to less organs in medical circulation. “The self-driving car is coming,” he said. “And right now, our best supply of organs come from car accidents… Once we have self-driving cars, we can actually reduce the number of accidents, but the next problem then would be organ replacement.” With such a crucial supply problem, more stakeholders (and society as a whole) would have greater investment in a quick development of 3D-printers that can print usable human material. And according to Pettis, it’s not an impossible task.

The Northside Innovation Conference is the technology and entrepreneurship component of the Northside Festival, Brooklyn’s largest discovery festival. The festival is now in its sixth year.

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