ON THE NATURE OF THINGS
A discussion about the ingenious idea of creating the ultimate software
formula for 3D printing of the future simply by looking at nature,
and about setting out to discover a whole new “universe”. A journey through time
with the pioneer Lin Sebastian Kayser.
Lin Sebastian Kayser
“The way in which we manufacture
things has remained basically
unchanged for the past two million
years. Materials are processed
and items assembled. In future,
things will be described differently.
There will be a paradigm
shift towards manufacturing along
generativ production lines.
A design can be described in relativly
and then our software will generate
the item exactly according to
The design of Lin Sebastian Kayser’s offices in Munich’s Schwabing district is an appealing metaphor for seemingly incom-patible empirical values: breaking away from the stereotypical clichés of the industry, while at the same time reflecting the understated informality inherent in Lin’s latest start-up, Hyperganic. The high ceilings are adorned with chandeliers and stucco. In the room next door, a sophisticated 3D printer about the size of a microwave oven hums away. Next to the prestigious Lumiere Technology Award from the International 3D Society, there are polaroids of staff, a few white plastic prototypes and an old maths book that once belonged to Lin Sebastian Kayser’s uncle, which he used to start teaching himself the art of programming when he was ten years old.
Lin, why are you so fascinated by space travel and science in general? What are you searching for?
Well, I grew up with space travel. My grandma had pictures of rocket launches on the walls instead of nice photos of her grandchildren. My Uncle Lutz founded OTRAG, the first private rocket company, in the 1970s and was pretty much the Elon Musk of his time. Space has always held a great fascination for us humans and for me, it’s only a matter of time until we start colonising space in earnest. Perhaps that’s why I married an astrophysicist. And I have great hopes for space travel, particularly for us here on Earth too. Environmental campaigning would never have been possible without the Blue Marble pictures, which showed our planet in all its glory from space, but which also showed its fragility. We humans work best when we have interesting target objectives and of course, space offers a magnificent playground for additive manufacturing, which can be used to print objects directly in situ using local materials rather than laboriously launching them into space.
You’re a member of the Friends and Sponsors of the Deutsches Museum, which promotes educational programmes and modernisation. How does someone whose primary professional interest lies in the digital future get to be so interested in museums?
Many of the exhibits in the museum are not all that old. This testifies to the fast pace of change, although sometimes everything seems to move incredibly slowly. I believe it’s important to check a point of reference now and again. It wasn’t so long ago that a computer would fill an entire room or, for that matter, that people didn’t have cars. The museum shows how much can change in a few decades and this is something that we very much underestimate. We often think that the world is something static, because nothing much tends to change in our daily life. Today it’s hard to imagine that there were no smartphones around ten years ago, for instance.
Do you find it interesting to see which thinkers and inventors were completely ahead of their time and whom the world had to catch up with?
Yes, that’s why I like reading biographies of influential entrepreneurs and finding out that their problems were very similar to mine. When grand plans don’t fit into the conventional scheme of things, critics and doubters are certainly nothing new. If an entrepreneur does something that everyone says is a brilliant idea, it means that they’re probably too late. On the contrary, if everyone around you says “but that’s from the realm of pure fantasy”, you’re far more likely to be on the right path. Of course, timing is everything.
Whose biography has inspired you recently?
I read Richard Branson’s biography time and time again. He’s led a completely bonkers life and, to a certain degree, he also embodies the relatively free spirit of the world of entrepreneurship. How on earth do you go from a recording studio to an airline? I like his authentic, imposing personality. The biography of Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways, is also impressive because it shows that in spite of all the obstacles, you can build something great with the right long-term goals. These days Pan Am’s been forgotten, but it used to be the world’s largest airline and Trippe was a genuine pioneer. When he began, everyone laughed at the idea of flying across the Atlantic, not to mention the Pacific. A truly fascinating entrepreneur!
When you advise start-ups and young entrepreneurs, what advice do you give? Would you recommend reading inspirational biographies and having suitable role models, or do you tell them to find their own way?
The first question I always ask is Why are you doing this? Unfortunately, I often don’t receive a good reply. It really is the most important question, because the start-up business is a difficult one. By that, I don’t mean some hipster in a coffee shop, with a latte in one hand and occasionally tapping away at a laptop with the other. Taking entrepreneurship seriously is a mission in life, and it’s hard work. You don’t do it to get rich. Another key question for me is “Why does this business idea inspire you?” If you don’t have a good answer to this, then think again. I want to encourage people to tackle truly serious problems. It drives me mad that many founders have their eye on market shares in a zero-sum game and then develop some new app which produces only a miniscule improvement. That’s all very well, but we have a great many momentous problems that could be solved by entrepreneurial effort. I think too few people tackle these problems—it’s as if they didn’t exist.
Why do you think that is?
It’s very much a question of guts. “Do I dare?” Of course, this is a difficult issue for young entrepreneurs because first of all, they have to work out who they are and what they can do. I always try to inspire young people to be bolder than they think they can be. In my experience, the right time is exactly when your instinct tells you it’s still too early. Once you take a bold step, you often look back and suddenly, it appears to be quite normal. Taking a risk is an important aspect. As an entrepreneur doing something exciting, you should really be minded to ignore what people are saying about you.
How has your personal courage been affected over the years and your successes?
I dropped out of university to take my first job with a start-up. That was a real watershed moment. I proved to myself that I had the right degree of self-confidence to know that I’m good at what I do. This might seem courageous from the outside, but it didn’t feel like that at all. In contrast, founding my first start-up was brave, because it happened just after my first daughter was born and although my wife had a good job, I had to start from scratch. I started to work for Hollywood by chance, because I happened to have written some software that people could download from my website. I identified the business potential and it worked well for ten years. It was only much later that I realised I had done it simply because the opportunity had presented itself and by a complete fluke, there was a market for it. I hadn’t really thought about whether the subject filled me with enthusiasm or not; however, the process of digitalising the film industry did fascinate me. We built the first digital cinemas and it was an incredibly exciting time! It’s a huge privilege to be in the right place at the right time and to help to shape change. Yet I was never interested in film. It never conformed to my value system.
How would you describe your value system against the backdrop of a decade in the film industry?
I’m a great fan of creativity. But in the film industry, creativity is purely self-serving. Our software doesn’t support grandiose, stunning visuals that change your life, but instead, films where fictional robots battle dinosaurs … My interest lies in sustainability and the capacity to influence the lives of other people, in using my own life meaningfully. We were financially successful and we had lots of fun: I love it when things change dramatically, when you can’t really see where something is heading but can only guess, when there’s no certainty … That’s the environment in which I blossom. Over the years, my lack of real interest in the film industry began to gnaw away at me. It was a great experience but, looking back, I would have liked to have had a mentor who challenged me to reflect on whether that was truly something I wanted to do.
Is that another reason why you mentor so many people—because you would have liked someone like you as a mentor to challenge all your ideas, but at the same time who gave you the courage to be idealistic?
Absolutely, yes, because it’s hard for young people to appraise themselves. I grew up in the belief that when I was an adult, there would be inhabitable space stations and that we would only be using sustainable energy. Now I’m asking myself what the heck happened! There are plenty of examples showing how many small steps can move the world forward. We simply don’t have a choice; climate change is advancing and the world is suffering. As an entrepreneur, I ask myself why we didn’t improve things long ago. An essential key here is that young entrepreneurs take up the challenge. But how should they do this if they don’t have someone from outside encouraging them now and again—for instance, to examine the sustainability targets of the United Nations and to ask how concrete improvements can be made in the next 15 years? There are a million business ideas around and some of them aren’t even complicated.
If I understand the essence of your company correctly, Hyperganic is very involved in tackling the processes of nature, focusing on nature and ensuring its survival. How did this come about?
Hyperganic is the result of a really long thought and experience process. Seven years ago, I bought my first 3D printer to try it out. For me, software has always been something extremely creative, because there are no limits to what you can do. Consequently, the 3D printer was in line with the open-ended nature of the physical world. At first, I just enjoyed printing all kinds of plastic components but I slowly hit upon the idea that this production technology could effect fundamental change. At the time, I was at a stage where I had just sold my start-up to a major U.S. company and was considering what I would do next in the corporate world. I tried out many different ideas, established a foundation for environmental protection, became involved in the art world, incubated a couple of start-up ideas and took on the role of investor, but I still wanted to do something myself. My fascination with 3D printing was based on the opportunity of working in an industry undergoing a revolutionary change. The way in which we manufacture is unbelievably wasteful, swallowing up shockingly large quantities of resources. It is also very limiting, since it doesn’t offer a great deal of room to manoeuvre. Everything man-made is relatively simple. But why do we put house plants in our offices? Why do we find such enjoyment in nature when we go for a walk? Nature is infinitely complex, yet efficient at the same time. It uses hardly any resources to create all the fantastic things that surround us. A tree is so much more complex than any car or computer! In terms of the process, 3D printing functions in a similar way to nature—assembling molecules according to a certain plan. In nature, this plan is stored in DNA. What do we need to do to adapt this method of production? I’m far from the only one to think about this technology. However, I noticed that most entrepreneurs seem to concentrate on the hardware, rather than the software—which you could describe as the DNA of 3D printing. Three years ago, we assembled a small team to see whether we might do something in this field, and that led to the establishment of Hyperganic AG this year. What also spurs me on is the limitation of creativity. Manufacturing currently depends on how complicated the instructions are, how cumbersome the working process is, or how costly the materials are. At the same time, we are very wasteful with energy and materials. Nature manages to produce many things with different properties using very few materials. Conversely, we humans have a great deal of material at our disposal, but can generate only simple things. Putting the two together is an extremely exciting prospect and would have a considerable effect on the products we manufacture.
I get the impression that you’ve put together a team which is similar in composition to your description of nature: relatively few people with a broad spectrum of capabilities. What was your guiding principle?
Throughout my life, I have employed people with whom I wanted to create something. Not human resources to fulfill a task, but people with whom I wanted to work. We’re not some kind of cosy clique, because of course, everyone has his or her own initial professional remit. The exciting aspect is that our people keep on developing. I make sure that they are enthused by the subject and are keen to contribute. Sometimes, these are people that I’ve known for years, people I believe in and have great faith in. They’re people who are creative, but also untamed. Entrepreneurship often means blood, sweat and tears. But if you know why you’re doing it, then an exhausting day doesn’t lead to stress and at the weekends you may well feel weary, but in a positive way, like you do after finishing a long hike. It’s important to me that my team consists of autonomous individuals with different backgrounds. Diversity can make a great deal happen. Half our engineers are women, and that’s a huge benefit. We’re always honest with each other, however trite that may sound, and there aren’t too many companies around where you can speak your mind openly. The team here discusses subjects which are sometimes extremely controversial, and feathers may fly. However, ultimately the right ideas do prevail, because everyone’s singing from the same hymn-sheet in order to advance the common vision. I’m extremely proud of my team!
How do you convey your enthusiasm for unconventional work approaches and your own life experiences to your five children as they start school and embark on their careers? Do you hope that they’ll pursue classic career paths, and if so, in what form? Can you direct this in your position as a parent in any way?
I don’t know if you can direct it. The more children my wife and I had, the more I began to jettison the idea, and I now believe that active parenting is not all that possible. As ever, the best and only way is to set an example that you believe is right. My children live in a very open world, in which there’s a great deal of questioning and discussion. Scientific principles play a major role, and there are things you can believe and things that you can actually measure and see. My wife and I are both very science-oriented. We’re trying to give our children the opportunity of pursuing all their own interests. Of course, I find it important to have certain basic values and that the children are well brought up. For instance, it should be possible for them to go to the opera and sit there without instantly getting fidgety. Whether they end up pursuing a classic course of studies or not, it’s fine with me, especially in view of my own history! I’m successful, but I don’t have a degree; my wife is successful and she has a PhD in physics. My father was a painter and sculptor who painted in an old farmstead, and on the other hand, my uncle flew across the world in a Learjet and founded a rocket company. We cover the entire spectrum of life. And that’s a good thing, because the children can see that happiness is not necessarily tied to a conventional path. I hope that my children will be happy, lead a life they can be proud of and make a contribution to humankind.
Where do you see this contribution in relation to Hyperganic? How many industries are you aiming to -influence, and which ones are they?
That’s an interesting question: where’s the focus, and where might the effort be wasted? What has always fascinated me about software is the fact that it can be absolutely universal. You can use technology to print machines or aircraft components, but you can also print living organs. I think it would be great for this flexibility to continue. Many of these subjects need a certain degree of depth in order to produce something worthwhile. Sure, you can upscale the company, but there is always the risk that the existing close cooperation will fall prey to a strict hierarchy. However, we are nowhere near there yet. Our current goal is to cover as many industry sectors as we can and to maintain the same general approach, so that we don’t spread ourselves too thinly.
Where do you believe your focus lies? How is this evident in your vision?
The way in which we manufacture things has remained basically unchanged for the past two million years. Materials are processed and items assembled. Additive manufacturing now offers the opportunity of single-mould manufacturing. To do this requires software that models and represents these things, and that’s our role. In future, things will be described differently. At present, everything has to be drawn in order to be manufactured. This is a graphic process. There’s a clear limit on the amount of complexity and functionality that can be incorporated, and that’s why there must be a paradigm shift towards manufacturing along generative production lines. A design can be described in relatively abstract specifications, and then our software will generate the item exactly according to specification. We don’t need any precise details to manufacture the item. The process remains the same, whether the item is an artificial heart or a rocket component. Hyperganic’s software is the DNA of additive manufacturing, and in essence, it functions similarly in every case.
You were invited to appear at TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania, in August. How did you tackle the subject of sustainability of 3D printing in Africa in your workshop and talk?
This is a hugely exciting subject, because the greatest challenges to humankind are associated with problems in the developing countries, particularly Africa. Yet at the same time, these problems offer a massive opportunity for potential solutions. I believe that much could be better resolved by African entrepreneurs if they had access to a digital supply chain where items could be produced by additive manufacturing methods in situ. This would create a transformative, digital supply chain, and local production could be applied globally. Perhaps new technologies such as 3D printing will have an easier time in Africa than here in Europe, where there’s competition from the existing infrastructure. Why should I print off a cogwheel if I can just pop out and buy one from a shop? It’s a bit like solar power; it’s been hard to introduce because it’s up against more conventional sources of energy which have proved to work well anyway. In developing countries, there is often no electricity. This means a solar cell represents a 100% improvement. Suddenly, a village can produce its own power supply and is then more advanced than we are, because we’re dependent on huge power stations that push out tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Subsequently, there is an opportunity for what’s known as leapfrogging. In general terms, it means that where there is a lack of something, an opportunity arises for new technologies, which then quickly achieve a very sophisticated level of development and with the result that people in highly-developed industrial countries show a sudden interest in them. In my opinion, makerspaces are key to this development—open workshops with equipment including 3D printers, so that small production runs or prototypes can be printed off for the local market. Entrepreneurs should always maintain proximity to their customers, and who could be closer to the African market than a person who also lives in one of its developing countries?
As a CEO, multiple board member, popular speaker on subjects relating to entrepreneurship, sustainability, diversity and software development, environmental campaigner and father of five, Lin likes to joke that no college dropout should ever shock his parents with a life plan like his. A blend of enthusiasm, audacity, empathy and far-sightedness shaped his vision for Hyperganic, which aims to mimic nature in the design of its products. Together with the co-founders, Chief Technology Officer, Michael Gallo, and Director of Design, Duy Anh Pham, he took up the challenge of re-inventing manufacturing processes from the ground up to give new expression to creativity and to redefine the basic concepts of material usage.
What’s your experience of makerspaces in Africa to date?
A while ago, I visited an AI lab in Ethiopia. I was surprised that something like that even existed in this East African country … I met a fantastic team there who were developing remarkable software. Artificial intelligence is all well and good, but it will become really exciting when it’s combined with robotics. The project had been started there, but as I have already said, there are unimaginable problems in obtaining certain components. The team simply couldn’t make progress. Back in Munich, I kept thinking about how differently the whole experiment would have progressed if they had been in Bavaria, and so I sent them a 3D printer to try out and then I forgot about it for several months. Then, when by chance I was talking to the project manager one day, I asked him if anything at all had been produced by the makerspace and back came a shout: “Oh Lin, I completely forgot to tell you about our achievement. We’ve built a robot that can play football! We’ve started a joint league with several universities where the robots compete with each other and put their tactics to the test!” A single 3D printer had made a significant contribution towards creating a platform for applied robotics in Ethiopia. This is one aspect which, on the one hand, makes me feel desperate, and on the other, gives me incredible hope. There are huge numbers of people in Africa wanting to produce great things and who are directly dependent on the availability of the appropriate resources. Very often, they have no opportunity at all of accessing them. However, this is a problem which can be fixed with relative ease. With a little creative identification, it’s easy to equip a makerspace or a centre for entrepreneurs, or perhaps visit a university or a start-up to see what might happen. There are examples of demand at relatively low level everywhere throughout Africa. We’re already in talks with several interesting people who would like to develop makerspaces with us.
What a great project! Do you think that in principle, ethical conflicts may arise at some point, depending on what your technology is used for and by whom?
Well, of course you can print a spare part for a broken aircraft wing, or chocolates, perhaps, or you can research a revolutionary method of seawater desalination, but you could also produce weapons. That is a given with any technological manufacturing process and we shall have to find solutions for this. At the moment, it isn’t particularly easy to smuggle or manufacture weapons. As soon as the supply chain is digital, it will become much easier, because a printer has no idea what it is producing. A far more important issue which touches all of our society is that nearly all of these technologies will supplant the natural, existing manufacturing mechanisms. A 3D printer doesn’t need many staff. We must start thinking at an early stage about people currently engaged in the mechanical manufacturing process. One aspect which I find encouraging is the fact that additive manufacturing offers vast potential for creativity. I believe it is an exciting subject for people who are currently stuck in frustrating jobs, but who might then be free to explore areas where they could be in a position to come into their own and really influence creative processes, creating items with imagination as their only limitation. Many technologies are currently converging and, of course, it’s undeniable that this jeopardises jobs. This is an issue to be resolved not only by society, but by each individual for him or herself. All of us are under an obligation to ourselves to learn new skills and to develop new knowledge in response to the emerging paradigm shifts. In my opinion, one of the saddest phenomena of our time is that many people look to the future not with curiosity, but with fear. As inquisitive individuals, change presents us with a huge opportunity, but it’s a disaster for anyone who is inflexible and just wants to be left alone.
What’s so great is that you came to the technology before anyone else and that it’s in the hands of someone who thinks deeply about all the issues, including potential job losses. But what will happen to classic craftsmanship? Will the traditional ways of creating beautiful objects become obsolete?
I don’t think that artisanship will become obsolete because of us, but possibly some manual processes might do. However, even this can offer an additional opportunity for career development. In principle, utopia and dystopia are always just a hair’s breadth apart. One is a world in which human beings no longer have to work at tedious jobs, and the other is a world in which nobody actually knows what he or she should be doing. Similarly, while financial security must be assured, at the same time we also need to have something meaningful in our lives that’s a source of pride. That brings me back to mentoring—I like challenging entrepreneurs to rethink. I ask them what they actually want to do. I believe that there have never been as many opportunities for people to realise their potential as there are now. In turn, this brings us full circle on the subject of courage, prompting us to say, “Right! I’m going to give this a real go!”. And also on the subject of children, we were born into a world where change is the only constant and where the pace of change is increasingly fast. You could run from it screaming–but if you’re afraid, you’re likely to do something stupid. Alternatively, you could say, “Yes, that’s exciting!” The challenge first and foremost is also for society to create mechanisms which will assure quality of life is retained when change happens.
Lin, thank you for talking to us.