To kick off our women in AM focus series this month, we spoke to Lee-Bath Nelson, co-founder of LEO Lane, a well-known provider of security and intellectual property (IP) protection solutions for the AM industry. The Israel-based company, founded in 2014, enables manufacturers to not only protect their IP for additively manufactured (AM) parts but to control the use of digital assets, helping to make AM a viable manufacturing solution for industrial applications.
We spoke to Lee-Bath Nelson about LEO Lane, which she co-founded in partnership with Moshe Molcho (CEO) and industrial design expert Tessa Joan Blokland. Together, the three have worked to create an easily integrated security software solution.
As a company co-founded by two women and a man, LEO Lane has also come to be known as a prime example of how gender diversity is achievable in the tech and AM spheres. Still, the company is one of a minority with women in leadership positions in AM. We spoke to Nelson about this dynamic as well as how her company is helping to shape the AM industry.
From VC to AM
“I was a partner in venture capital firms for many years,” Nelson says, explaining how she was first introduced to 3D printing. “The first firm that I was a partner at invested in Objet Geometries, which today is Stratasys. This was over 20 years ago. Through that, I was exposed to 3D printing, which at the time looked like magic to me.
“After that investment, I continued in venture capital for over a decade and invested in many different companies. But there was something fascinating about 3D printing that made me keep my eye on it. I was also involved with a company called Orbotech, which combines hardware and software and also dabbled in 3D printing.”
Nelson’s own background is in computer science and programming. In the beginning of her career, she worked as a programmer before ending up on the business side of things. One of her primary interests was to do with security. In fact, her master’s thesis dealt with how distributed networks could become resilient to attacks—even though, at the time, there were no distributed networks.
“When I noticed a shift towards additive, I recognized that there were going to be commercial problems going from prototyping to production. When you have a prototype, inconsistencies can be managed; with an end part, it has to be the same every single time and it has to be on spec every time. Additionally, people want to protect their IP and their know-how. They want to have control not only over the quality and IP but over the quantity of parts that are 3D printed. In a prototyping environment you worry less about that, but in production it is vitally important. LEO Lane was founded to address these issues and it was very clear to us that Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) cloud was the way to solve these commercial problems.”
LEO Lane team
In 2014, LEO Lane was founded by Nelson, Molcho and Blokland, who each brought their respective expertise to the company to address the aforementioned issues in AM.
“I came into it having followed the AM industry for a long time and having extensive business development and investment experience. Our CEO Moshe is a SaaS expert—this is his third SaaS startup. Tessa is an industrial design expert and she really represented the customer voice when we started off.
“Initially, we thought about money—how many items you print and how to encrypt the IP. Tessa made us realize that first and foremost we had to take care of manufacturing consistency because if an item isn’t reproducible, then it’s not industry-grade at all. Companies aren’t going to start counting items if you’re not going to offer them consistency first. Those are the kinds of insights that were instrumental and which Tessa brought to the table.”
Playing well with others
Though LEO Lane offers a complete security solution for manufacturers, covering virtual inventories, quality control, IP protection and more, there are still some challenges inherent in the industry that are hindering adoption.
“One of the challenges that this entire ecosystem has is that it’s fragmented,” Nelson elaborates. “I think that one of the most important things for all companies in the sector, including us, is to play well with others. Since day one, we’ve insisted that our software is super easy to integrate with others so that an end-to-end solution can be reached. Manufacturers need an end-to-end solution that will allow seamless, automated production. Integration and software are key because software is what really brings machines together. And it doesn’t have to be one software package—typically, there isn’t a single package in our ecosystem that addresses the whole production process.”
Another challenge, she continues, is that the additive manufacturing industry is quickly evolving, meaning that AM hardware and software companies have to remain nimble and adaptable.
“This is a very fast paced industry. It changes a lot and it changes very quickly,” she says. “You have to have flexible systems in order to survive in it. If you have to recode every time something changes then it’s not sustainable at any level. Those are challenges we try to address at LEO Lane, but it’s an ecosystem-wide challenge.”
Genie in a bottle
As a company specializing in IP protection in the additive industry, LEO Lane understands the concerns that many manufacturers have in adopting AM. For all the benefits of the technology—such as on-demand production and minimized physical inventories—there are also risks.
“The issue with IP is that it’s like a genie in a bottle. Once it’s out, you can’t put it back. If somebody steals an item from a physical inventory, the company has lost the income for one item. But if it’s a digital item, it’s never ending. If people have access to an original part that they can 3D print, they’ll never pay for that part again. And once it’s out on platforms like Thingiverse there’s no way to take it back even if you remove it from there, it was already passed on to countless other places.
“You have to be preventative with IP, because the alternative to prevention is suing everybody, which is obviously a costly and time consuming headache that no one wants.”
Supporting women in business
In addition to heading LEO Lane as its VP of business, Nelson has taken on another important role in the AM sector: being an active supporter and proponent for women in the industry. This activist spirit was born out of her own experience being one of a small minority of women in her professional milieus.
“I was a board member or board observer on many boards and my normal experience was that I was the only woman in the room. Now, I actively try to do something about it and I think I can make a difference and I encourage other women to do the same.”
In her career as a VC, Nelson realized at one point that her business contacts were overwhelmingly male—only about 5% were female. Since then, she has been actively seeking out women in business and AM to connect and work with. Now, she says her LinkedIn network is about 20% female—a noted improvement on 5%, though she admits there is still a ways to go.
“That required something deliberate on my part,” she emphasizes. “And I think it’s really up to us as women to be proactive. For example, I will never refuse a business woman who wants to meet with me, I’ll make a special effort to make myself available and see if I can connect them with somebody.”
Importance of representation
In the additive manufacturing industry—and tech industry at large—though there is a notable gender imbalance, there is at least a conversation about diversity taking place. Going beyond the conversation, Nelson believes there are some concrete things that can be done to help support women in the industry and change the makeup of leadership positions.
“I would like to see more women at conferences—I think there should be a woman in every session, at least one,” she says. “And it wouldn’t be bad if there was a session where it was mostly or all women—but it wasn’t a session about work-life balance, it was a session about, say, applications of metal 3D printing.
“This is again related to the proactive nature of it: it’s completely possible to find at least one woman for every panel. There are a lot of good speakers. It’s a matter of awareness, it’s a matter of deciding we want to send a message.”
“There have been advancements, and I hope they gain momentum. I really think that if we all put in a little bit more effort to help each other in the network and to share what we know, we can make a big difference.”
“I think diversity in everything is good,” Nelson concludes. “It’s good to be different, it’s good to have many points of view and to have open, honest discussions. It’s important that everybody recognizes how much different opinions contribute to innovation and growth.