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Montreal entrepreneur sets sights on upending industrial design and manufacturing world

Max Windisch, left, and Etienne Lacroix, right, co-founders of Vention, a digital machine manufacturing platform, at their company offices in Montreal on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

When Etienne Lacroix was a boy, he attempted to build an airplane using a barrel for a cockpit and a lawnmower engine-powered propeller. He tried building bikes and a catapult before his father, a detective, warned him "inventor is not a job" and advised him to become an engineer.

Now, the 35-year-old is putting his inventive streak to work as CEO of a Montreal startup called Vention Inc. that helps other firms build machines.

Like many tinkerers, Mr. Lacroix has borrowed some features of other inventive organizations – including IKEA, Wordpress Foundation, Stitch Fix Inc. and Lego Group – to create something unique: a mashup of a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software firm, hardware designer, parts supplier and e-commerce portal that enables industrial manufacturers to quickly create, source and order parts to build plant equipment with a few clicks. It's a one-stop machine shop.

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"You can design a fully automated machine today, we'll ship it today and you'll have it by tomorrow," Mr. Lacroix said. "That is up to 20 times faster than the current work flow." His goal, the intense, fast-talking entrepreneur says, is to "become the world's starting point of every machine."

Mr. Lacroix's idea, drive and early track record – more than half of the company's 60 customers including General Electric, Bombardier, and Pratt & Whitney have made repeat orders – have quickly established 18-month old Vention as one of Canada's most impressive startups. On Tuesday the firm is announcing it has raised $3.5-million in seed financing led by White Star Capital with backing from early investors Bolt Innovation Management of Boston, Montreal's Real Ventures, and several prominent North American tech executives including serial Montreal tech entrepreneur Louis Tetu.

"We think this combination of a design engine at the front end with the hardware and the package all under one roof will change the market completely," said White Star managing partner Jean-François Marcoux. Added Axel Bichara, general partner of Bolt: "This is a unique play" in the CAD space. "The market is there, the team is there. It's an execution play at this point."

Vention's goal is to solve the kind of persistent problem Mr. Lacroix encountered when he worked as a product manager at GE, and as consultant with McKinsey & Co. to industrial manufacturers.

Since there is no standardized market for customized equipment found throughout plants – such as test benches, robot stands, drilling tables, jigs and heavyweight carts – manufacturers typically design and source bespoke pieces themselves from a variety of suppliers. The process can take months. "It's a huge problem if you're actually in this space and aware of how things actually get built" in an era where product life cycles are speeding up, said Vention investor Rob Stevens, a senior executive with Boston software firm Tive Inc.

Vention's solution starts with a standardized set of 300 building parts such as extrusion beams and mounting plates used to build the machines. The firm has designed two-thirds of the parts and sourced them from aluminum suppliers, securing other components such as motors and caster wheels from outside manufacturers to precise specifications. It keeps three weeks of inventory stocked at its headquarters in a converted paper plant in Montreal's St-Henri district.

Using Vention's proprietary web-based 3D CAD program – which is free – users drag images of the parts from a virtual library and snap them into place on their screens as they design their machines. As each part drops into place, the cost instantly tallies up in the top-right corner of the screen. When the user is done, a click on a shopping cart icon sets the Vention team in motion packaging the parts with an Allen key for pickup by UPS, to be assembled by the buyer, a la IKEA. (Mr. Lacroix expects Vention gross margins to top 50 per cent, more than three times what small machines typically earn.)

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That simplifies and speeds up the process for manufacturers to build the machines that make machines. Vention has even published 200 assembly plans for previously designed machines that customers can buy or modify. "If we can get into production two weeks earlier, we start selling two weeks earlier, the payback is obvious," said Sam Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a Quebec City maker of tooling parts for industrial robots that has ordered several test bench kits from Vention. His company shaved weeks and thousands of dollars in engineering costs compared with traditional methods and now recommends Vention to peers. "I definitely believe that's the direction the industry is going," Mr. Bouchard said.

It's been a quick three-and-a-half years since Mr. Lacroix came up with the idea to start a firm that would take advantage of advances making it feasible to run engineering applications over browsers. Despite warnings from former GE colleagues that Vention was a bad idea, his ex-employer became an early customer. Everything else has fallen into place, including recruiting veteran software developer Max Windisch as chief technology officer. He still needs to hire key executives, attract orders and scale up his inventory management and order fulfilment operations. But so far Mr. Lacroix has done "everything he says he's going to do, which is pretty unusual" for a startup CEO, Mr. Bichara said. And Mr. Tetu believes that, like Uber users, once customers use Vention there will be "no going back to the old way ... They're only limited by their ability to spread the brand."

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