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Kitchener startup first in Canada to win Dyson international award

Kitchener startup first in Canada to win Dyson international award

Posted by PanamericanWorld on November 13, 2015

Voltera, a local startup that's created a special 3D printer for quickly making circuit boards, has won the top international prize of $54,000 in the James Dyson Award.

It is the first time a Canadian team has won the international design and engineering competition, which is named for and funded by the man who invented the Dyson vacuum cleaners. As part of the award, the University of Waterloo gets an additional $9,000.

Voltera was founded in June 2013 by four University of Waterloo graduates — Alroy Almeida, Jesús Zozaya, Katarina Illic and James Pickard.

"I think all of us were pretty honoured to receive this award. It is a pretty prestigious award," Illic said in an interview Monday.

"What do we do with the money? We just keep working hard. We have a lot of research and development ahead of us," Illic said.

Illic studied nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. As part of Voltera, she focused on creating inks that conduct electricity. Those inks are used to make printed circuit boards. When combined with the startup's special 3D printer, the Voltera V-One, makers and engineers can turn design files into prototype circuit boards within minutes.

Up to now that process took weeks. It was a choke point in the iteration of early designs that's bedevilled innovators for decades. Engineering students from the University of Waterloo sometimes spent most of their co-op placements waiting for new prototypes of circuit boards. In fact, that downtime was the inspiration for finding a way to quickly print new circuit boards.

Circuit boards are the electrical nervous system of everything from smartphones to medical devices.

The startup currently employs 17 people, and it will be expanded as the team develops new versions of the printer.

Second place in the international competition goes to a Taiwan startup called Green Fairy. It developed biodegradable cell beads containing microorganisms which eat the nutrients in water that cause algae blooms.

Placing third is Express Dive from Ireland. It invented a small, lightweight alternative to the traditional scuba tank.

Illic recently spent six months in Shenzhen, China, at the hardware accelerator called HAX. Zozaya joined her periodically during that time. Together they oversaw the first production run of 50 Voltera V-One printers. Half of those units are already spoken for by early adopters who supported Voltera's crowdfunding campaign.

"We communicated with various factories for the different parts we needed, and then shipped them all back here to be fully assembled, fully tested and shipped out by the end of next week," Illic said. "It prints beautifully."

Early next year Voltera plans to have its first, large batch of 500 printers manufactured in China. The innovative devices will sell for approximately $1,700 each. The HAX accelerator supported Illic and Zozaya as they negotiated with factories to manufacture the parts.

"We have put everything in place that needs to be put in place over in China, and set the stage, so that the second production batch goes smoothly," Illic said.

Creating the Voltera V-One printer required the combination of three engineering disciplines — nanotechnology, software and electromechanical.

"The hardest part was all of these different aspects had to work together in a very, very unique way," Illic said.

The Dyson Foundation sent representatives to Kitchener recently who told the Voltera team they were here to interview the final six startups. The founders huddled in front of a laptop when James Dyson appeared on the screen congratulating the founders of Voltera.

"The whole idea was to get our reaction onscreen, which they did very nicely," Illic said. "The others stayed relatively calm, but I went a little crazy."

The James Dyson Award was established in 2002 and runs in 20 countries. It is open to university students or recent graduates studying product design, industrial design and engineering, who "design something that solves a problem."

The Voltera team is located in the Velocity Foundry on Water Street in downtown Kitchener — a space run by the University of Waterloo for hardware startups.

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