Voltera is one of Canada’s top emerging startups and a pioneer in additive electronics. The goal? Print electronics on anything and everything, opening up a world of possibilities.

Over the years, there’s been plenty of debate in the startup sphere over whether university is ‘worth it.’ The college dropout turned tech superstar is a much lauded story arc in Silicon Valley. However, for the co-founders of Waterloo-based Voltera, university was not just worth it, but the genesis of their company.

What began as a school project by four University of Waterloo engineering students turned into one of Canada’s fastest-growing startups as Voltera blazes new trails in electronics.

Specifically, Voltera specializes in additive electronics, which have the potential to open up a world of possibilities like circuitry in sneakers to track your runs or parkas with smart heated pockets that respond to outside temperature. The goal is to print electronics on practically any material in a manner that’s also more sustainable than traditional manufacturing methods.

The next generation of 3D printing

Voltera’s founders were originally inspired by the 3D-printing boom in the early 2010s. “We started in 2013–– three of us were in the mechatronics program and one of us was in the nanotechnology program. It was the classic story where a few engineering students get together, start a class project, and it spins off into what ends up being a company,” says Voltera co-founder and CEO Jesus Zozaya. “We were a bit unusual though in that it’s usually two or three people as founders, but there were four of us.”

As students, they found themselves fascinated by the opportunities presented by 3D printers. “We found them really cool and interesting. One of my co-founders, James, had one at home and was playing around with it when we had the idea that it’d be really neat to create one for the electrical side of things,” says Zozaya. “So instead of using raw plastic to create mechanical components, we ended up using a silver-based ink to create traces on circuit boards.”

The team entered a pitch competition organized by Velocity, an incubator on the University of Waterloo campus, and ended up winning some money. “It wasn’t a million bucks, but, at the time, it certainly felt like a million bucks,” says Zozaya. “After that, the rest was history.”
The more co-founders, the merrier?

It’s easy to imagine how four young entrepreneurs chasing success in an ultra-competitive industry could spell disaster. But, for Zozaya and his co-founders Katarina Ilic, James Pickard, and Alroy Almeida, their differences are an asset rather than a liability.

“Sometimes it’s been challenging getting all four of us to agree to something and we have very different personalities, but, for the most part, we complement each other quite well,” says Zozaya. “I’ve personally been extremely fortunate that my co-founders are essentially my best friends. I’ve met some founders who don’t get along outside of work, and that sounds miserable to me.”

Part of the secret to their success –– and sanity –– is that, although each co-founder naturally migrated to a path of expertise, they never entirely siloed themselves off or resisted helping out in other areas when needed.

“At the very early stages, I leaned more towards the software and electrical design and James was on the mechanical and production side, so both of us were more hands on. Katarina started migrating to the sales side and then Alroy was basically doing everything else, like applying for pitch competitions and planning marketing campaigns ,” says Zozaya. “But, ultimately being so small, you don’t really get to pick what you want to do. You have to do what you need to do.”

“Over time, people start finding what they’re good at. But, sometimes, what they’re good at isn’t necessarily what they enjoy doing.”

Sometimes, that means checking ego at the door or getting out of one’s comfort zone. “Over time, people start finding what they’re good at. But, sometimes, what they’re good at isn’t necessarily what they enjoy doing,” he laughs.

The pros and cons of youth

Founding a tech company is never a cakewalk, but doing so as a young student presents unique challenges. It also offers opportunities.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Zozaya. “On one hand, youth gives you a tremendous amount of confidence that you’re going to go out and take over the world, which is a huge advantage if you’re building something physical like a hardware company, because hardware companies are hard and you need all the confidence you can get.”

Confidence only goes so far though. “The other side of the sword is that you’re just students with pretty much no real life work experience. We had co-ops under our belt, but that’s pretty much it,” he says. “You end up making some mistakes that could’ve been avoided had you been in the workforce for a longer period of time. Sometimes, it’s just easier to use tried-and-tested frameworks when it comes to things like goal planning and setting KPIs than attempting to reinvent the wheel.”

So what exactly are additive electronics, anyway?

The best way to understand additive electronics is to begin by knowing a bit about traditional electronics. “In traditional electronics, circuit boards are found in any type of product that has an on-off switch. So you break away the plastic and inside any device, like your computer mouse, there will be a little green board that has the circuitry inside,” says Zozaya.

These boards are typically made using subtractive technology. He explains this is similar to how a sculptor will start with a huge chunk of rock, then carve away the excess they don’t need. “So you’re starting with the raw element, then removing what you want.”

This limits where electronics can be placed, and also results in waste from what’s discarded.

“Whereas with additive, which is perhaps the more intuitive approach, you’re only adding what you want the same way a painter draws on a canvas,” says Zozaya. “Generally speaking, it’s a lot less wasteful than subtractive manufacturing, which makes it more cost effective and more environmentally friendly.”

“We’re not too far off from a future where your workout leggings can measure your muscle activity because they have electronics directly embedded in them.”

Because you’re now adding material onto whatever surface you want rather than subtracting from an existing one, additive electronics also allow for creating circuitry in what Zozaya calls “unconventional locations.”

“We’re not too far off from a future where your workout leggings can measure your muscle activity because they have electronics directly embedded in them. Another example would be jackets with heated pockets. The whole idea is that it allows you to start thinking or innovating about where we can put more electronics in our everyday lives to make our lives a little bit nicer.”

Voltera currently has two products. V-One is a desktop printed circuit board (PCB) printer that allows creators to quickly create prototypes and get immediate feedback on their designs, accelerating the pace of innovation. NOVA allows for printing flexible, stretchable, and conformable electronics with a wide range of functional materials.

A real-life example of a groundbreaking product created using Voltera’s products were anti-procrastination smart glasses designed to boost productivity. They used AI to monitor what you’re looking at and motivate you to focus on a task at hand.

Does your printer bring you joy?

Voltera prides itself on both V-One and NOVA being intuitive and easy to use, requiring no prior experience, because breaking down barriers to innovation is core to Voltera’s company mission. “Some of our competitors willsell a two-week training course along with their machine,” says Zozaya. “That’s kind of odd to us. Because you don’t need a training course to use our products, you just need two hours to get started. That’s it.”

For Voltera, the user experience isn’t just a practical one–– aesthetics matter. The company proudly argues that tools don’t have to be ugly. “A lot of companies in our space, they focus on the hardware and what a machine can do, like the minimum resolution or printing speed . They tend to neglect entirely the software experience or what the support systems look like,” he says.

This commitment to function and form led Voltera to become the first-ever Canadian company to win the prestigious James Dyson Award in 2015 for their V-One printer. The prize came with a £30,000 prize that helped the startup accelerate their growth, all while retaining a belief that machines should both work well and look good.

Additionally, Voltera recently won a European Product Design Award for Innovation of the Year, as well as a 2023 GOOD DESIGN® Award.

As Zozaya attests, “Having a machine that’s well designed gives you a little bit of joy when you’re working with it.”

If you would like to learn more about Voltera, visit their website voltera.io.

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