Humans of Tech – Katarina Illic

Katarina Illic is the Co-Founder and Head of Research and Development at Voltera – she and her team have developed a disruptive additive manufacturing technology that will change hardware innovation. With customers that include NASA, Intel, and Apple, this team is starting to see their hard work pay off. Kat graduated  from the University of Waterloo with an Honors Nanotechnology Engineering degree and worked with international establishments including the Federal Materials Institute of France, IBM Germany and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

You’re the Co-Founder of a startup called Voltera. Could you tell us a bit about your product and how the idea came about?

Voltera is a continuation of a 4th year design project that myself and my engineering colleagues started. We were constantly running into this problem where we couldn’t build hardware products fast enough. When you’re building an electronic product it’s not like building software where you can see if it works at the click of a button. You have to iterate on it multiple times and each time you do that there is an entire development process involved. You’re essentially creating your design files, sending them off overseas, waiting a couple of weeks, paying minimum order quantity fees just to get the product back and find out another iteration is required. This jarring development process can repeat itself up to a dozen times.

We realized that hardware developers needed a faster way to get their product to market and that’s when we created the Voltera V-One. It is a printer for electronically functional devices. This was at the height of 3D printing where you could go from having a CAD on the screen to a physical product in your hands in matter of minutes. We thought if you have the same thing but electronically functional you could build the product in a matter of hours.

Could you tell us a client success story where Voltera helped make a difference?

One thing we’ve shown throughout history is that innovation can give you a competitive advantage over the global economy. The issue is that not everybody has access to the tools and infrastructure to innovate and build quickly. They’re usually stunted by two things – agility and costs. The whole motivation behind Voltera was to give everybody the equipment and products they need to help bring their novelties to the marketplace faster.

One day I got a phone call from a couple of guys who wanted a demo. These three Amish gentlemen showed up. The amazement on their faces when they saw the product running really makes my job so worth it. They were like “Wow it printed that in an hour. That would have taken us 3 weeks and we would have been $300 out”.

It turns out they’re 3 engineers working and living out of St. Jacobs and they’re building a thermal incubation device for making maple syrup.

I guess there’s quite a few “success stories” because we have everybody from Apple to Intel to NASA using the product for their prototyping applications, but these types of stories are my favourite. These are real problems faced by somebody within the community and we get the opportunity to change how they think about manufacturing and product development. We like to think we’re making the process faster, more economical, accessible and not letting any factories on the other side of the planet interfere with their development time.

What qualities do you specifically look for while choosing the initial hires for your start-up?

We look for individuals who are eager to learn and to hustle – someone motivated. I have a theory that people really have the ability to learn whatever they choose to. What’s difficult to often find is that internal hunger. That’s a quality that is difficult to teach because it’s usually intrinsically within somebody.

I look for somebody who is resourceful. They may not have all the tools in their toolbox to solve a problem but they know how to get those tools and go above and beyond to make it happen.

In a smaller company you need to be adaptive and be able to gather new skill sets as your role is constantly evolving.

What are you looking forward to as the company grows?

We’re in a phase right now where we’re really ready to grow. Keep in mind that we started this from ground up. It started with just 4 people working in a garage trying to put together a scrappy prototype and since then we’ve seen the life cycle of the product. We’ve gone from R&D to prototyping, to industrial design, to manufacturing, to taking it to the market. Now that we’ve done that once, I’m looking forward to doing it again and again.
We’re entering a phase right now where we’re expanding quite a bit and hiring a lot of technical talent so we can continue to develop new products.

Learning how to expand our global reach is another thing I’m excited about. Right now we ship the Voltera V1 to over 60 countries. That’s getting hard to keep up with, so I’m looking forward to having global distributors and global partners all around the world that can make the product more accessible.

How do you propose creating a culture and environment that is inclusive of diverse sets of people?

A lot of companies might find themselves in a position where they’ve already established a culture that’s very homogeneous, and by that point its very difficult to manipulate that culture. So I think it’s important that from early on you establish a culture that is open and diverse, where communication is very important.

We really think it’s imperative to have a diverse group of employees because we sell internationally. If you’re looking to have a global reach it’s important to have different perspectives and people who can break the language and culture barrier with clients.

What do you do outside of work to fill your energy reserves and keep you sane?

I like to run, I like to rock climb, I like to stay active – basically just doing something that is physically exhausting because it takes any pressure off the mental exhaustion.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is the stories from our customers – like the team out of St. Jacobs or an awesome research group at Oxford University that’s using Voltera to build all sorts of novel devices and using the machine to print on bio-compatible films for medical diagnostic applications. One of our first publications just came out, a medical research paper out of King’s College, London – also along the lines of medical diagnostic tools where they cited us because they used the product so much.

It’s stories like that where you feel like you’re actually making an impact – that’s what motivates me. If it’s not doing what we intended it to do – making lives easier and helping people to innovate and if it’s not accessible to everybody – then what’s the point.

You could build Voltera anywhere in the world. Why Waterloo and why Canada?

This community has been huge for getting us off the ground and I don’t think we could have started it from scratch anywhere else in the world. When we started and needed a place to work – we had Velocity and we had Communitech – an infrastructure that was built for helping small companies succeed. You can’t find that everywhere. I thought this was standard when I started out but now I realize that free space and mentorship and access to information is truly unique to this region.

I have some founder friends in Toronto who are trying to start a company. They’re having a really hard time, they don’t have this sort of support. Velocity was huge in helping us get off the ground and, not only that, this is a very expensive project to kickstart. We’re a hardware company doing a lot of R&D, and we were working with expensive chemicals, expensive equipment and we needed funding to do that. We went to multiple pitch competitions and ended up taking home 9 out of 12 of the prizes we pitched for. There funding from the Government of Canada and grants that don’t exist everywhere.

The University of Waterloo was really helpful in giving us access to their laboratory space. The tech talent that we get from UW is another huge factor. Our very first co-op student is still with us today as our Lead Product Developer.

It’s a great space to build an agile business. Where else would you find a unification of all these elements – the funding aspect, the institutions, mentorship, young talent, and the ability to have a factory close by.

What are a couple of key learnings that you’d like to pass along to people working in startups?

  1. Be resourceful.
  2. If you’re looking constantly at the big problem you’ll never get there. Start from square one, go one step at a time, set milestones for yourself and figure out how to solve the immediate problem before you get to the next one.