- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A lot has changed in a short period of time for a 3D print startup company that launched one year ago in a downtown Columbia business incubator.

ZVerse, formerly known as DoodleSculpt, got significant initial interest when it opened last year, as consumers discovered 3D technology and some of its novel applications. Months into the launch, however, owner John Carrington’s business was in danger of folding and in need of an economic infusion, he said.

Instead of going under, ZVerse went to went on a tear through the Southeastern Conference, securing licensing rights with 24 major universities - including South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee - to produce official school consumer products. The company has raised $1 million in venture capital, Carrington said, and has moved out of the incubator and into a large manufacturing facility to meet growing demand for products produced with the technology of the future.

Widely acknowledged as the nation’s premier athletic conference, the SEC is domineering in college football, having claimed seven of the last eight national championships. The company also secured collegiate licensing contracts with a range of other schools, including Atlantic Coast Conference schools Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State, college football’s 2013 national champion.

“These schools don’t just award licenses to anyone, so that’s really a testament to the products that we were able to produce,” Carrington said, noting all their products are made and sourced in America and can be made on demand to capitalize on events.

ZVerse has mastered a 3D application it uses to produce highly-detailed reproductions of college stadiums, currently its major niche.

In May, a major sports marketing company took notice of ZVerse’s work and urged the Columbia company to pursue licensing, Carrington said. By June, ZVerse was doing pieces for ESPN and the Espy Awards, Carrington said, turning a two-dimensional photograph of former Texas A&M; quarterback and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel into six environmental marketing pieces in 3D.

“That reaffirmed our belief there was something here,” he said, in terms of content that people would pay for, and in new and exciting products ZVerse could make.

It really all “started” for the company in August, though, when Carrington said the company got its first collegiate licensing agreement with his alma mater, the University of South Carolina.

“In August and September we were already selling into all the national retailers that carry Carolina products,” Carrington said. ZVerse was by then an approved vendor for Fanatics, “which is huge,” he said, and Barnes & Noble, as well as regional retailers.

“Very quickly we were inserted, which I was told by my people that, it doesn’t happen like that (every day), so we felt great about that,” Carrington said.

ZVerse’s flagship product is stadium replicas, Carrington said. “Our stadium replicas are not like anything anyone has seen before and are not produced like anyone has seen before.”

Traditionally, college stadium replicas are crafted by a manufacturer, hand-painted in China, then shipped to the procurer, Carrington said. A business would have to order 10,000 of the painted replicas, of say, Williams-Brice Stadium, and hope they sell, he said.

But college stadiums change all the time, so a fledgling business could be stuck with a large, outdated inventory that is unsalable.

“With our technology, or with this form of 3D manufacturing, that’s the beauty of it - it specializes in short runs,” Carrington said. If 500 of a particular item sells, that’s great, Carrington said. If 5,000 are needed, that’s even better, but either way, his small business is not left with the cost, or the loss, of storing huge inventory.

“We have a lot more flexibility in terms of what kinds of products we would actually make, so we just take chances on products you wouldn’t normally take on,” Carrington said.

ZVerse has mastered the 3D technology so nimbly that when it produces a stadium reproduction from a 2D image such as a picture, the finished product depicts actual fans in the stands, Carrington said.

ZVerse’s stadium work began when USC’s athletic department asked it to produce something Coach Ray Tanner and USC President Harris Pastides could give out to war heroes at halftime on Military Appreciation Day, the USC-Coastal Carolina last November.

On Saturday afternoons in the fall, of course, college stadiums become the focal point for millions who gather faithfully for college football.

ZVerse designed and produced the stadium replicas for USC in 10 days, in time for the game, Carrington said, and was able to sell them afterward.

“We felt that if we could execute and demonstrate with the first license, which was with Carolina, that we could produce products people cared about, and sell them, get distribution, other schools would follow suit,” Carrington said.

Meanwhile, every ticketed sport at USC this year saw an increase both in season ticket sales and in average attendance, said Josh Waters, USC associate sports marketing director, “unheard of” in college athletics, he said.

“I kind of told these guys from Day One we’d be their test dummies for anything,” said Waters, who worked with Carrington on the USC Military Day event and noted Carrington has been approved by Collegiate Licensing Company, which protects the school’s logo from unauthorized use.

“He’s been approved by them to now start putting items into retail, which we’re happy for,” Waters said. “We’re happy for anything Carolina to be out there for the public to get.”

The Williams-Brice Stadium replica amazed him, Waters said. “It’s great quality, but the video board on there is about a half inch by a half inch, and there’s an actual play on the board. How they can get that detail blows my mind.”

The company is in discussions with a professional sports league, Carrington said, and a deal is expected to be cemented later this year. “That would be a tremendous game changer for us,” he said.

Recently, the company left IT-oLogy, the nonprofit business and academic collaboration headquarters downtown where it was founded and moved into the city’s historic warehouse district on Shop Road - near Williams-Brice Stadium - which gives ZVerse the manufacturing space it needed to add equipment to meet market demand, Carrington said.

ZVerse has grown from three employees last year to eight now and expects to double that by the end of the year, Carrington said - most of them USC graduates who in some cases left other careers and other cities to come onboard with ZVerse.

“The concept is endless,” said Ken Corbett, USC licensing director, who said he sent emails about ZVerse to his licensing colleagues in the SEC, but also to other schools around the country. “They are a very unique company and it’s great to have them in Columbia and working with USC.”

The 3D printing process opens the door to all kinds of work, Corbett said. When USC beat Clemson in football last year for the fifth time in a row, ZVerse created a No. 5 ornament that was a pretty big hit, he said. “The quick process can work in our favor.”

Creating that same ornament in the traditional mold and die method could have taken months to get the product in stores to sell, said Corbett, who noted “time is everything” when you have a product that might have a short shelf life.

“What is also great about the process, is if a stadium or venue changes from year to year or within short time spans like our stadium has, ZVerse can produce new versions of the venue quickly and in small quantities,” Corbett said.

ZVerse is working on a desktop replica of the USC mascot, Cocky, which will mirror a life-size bronze version in the works for a signature spot on the USC campus.

“The product they are developing is somewhat unique, it’s cutting-edge,” said Denise Wellman, USC Visitor Services director, who is leading the mascot project.


Information from: The State, https://www.thestate.com

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