Interview with Elissa Ross: Mathematics Behind Metafold 3D

Elissa Ross is a mathematician and the CEO of Toronto-based startup Metafold 3D. Metafold makes an engineering design platform for additive manufacturing, with an emphasis on supporting engineers using metamaterials, lattices, and microstructures at industrial scales. Elissa holds a PhD in discrete geometry (2011) and worked as an industrial geometry consultant for eight years before cofounding Metafold. Metafold is the result of observations made in the consulting context about the challenges and opportunities of 3D printing. Elissa spoke at our recent virtual event focusing on Design for Medical 3D Printing.

When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing?

Elissa: My first encounter with 3D printing was printing some shapes that resulted from some mathematical research. It was interesting because they were shapes I had described in algorithms and equations but never visualized physically. I sent the files to a nearby 3D printing shop, and they printed them using FDM. The results were relatively poor, and I mostly dismissed them. 

I first engaged with 3D printing in 2014 during a mathematics research project related to architecture. Working on a problem defining three-dimensional solids algorithmically, I realized creating a physical model would be impossible with traditional media, so I turned to 3D printing. Even though the results weren’t astounding, the potential of materializing abstract mathematical concepts was compelling. This appreciation for digital manufacturing continues to inspire my work in metamaterials and additive manufacturing today.

Filter Cartridges (Copyright: Metafold 3D)

What inspired you to start your journey?

Elissa: After my PhD in mathematics, I worked as a geometry consultant, solving complex geometry issues for engineering, architecture, and manufacturing. My co-founder Daniel and I were hired by a sportswear manufacturer aiming to employ 3D printing and lattice geometry to achieve high-performance materials for athletes. However, there was no effective software for their needs. This led us to two core concepts that inspired us to start Metafold 3D:

1. Current CAD software doesn’t work for additive manufacturing.

2. Specialized companies often need custom digital tooling for manufacturing, which usually involves a lot of geometry.

We recognized these as broader challenges in additive manufacturing, where software lags behind hardware development. We believed we had the resources to create software to address this gap. This was substantiated through numerous discussions, with a standout quote from a 3D printer manufacturer, “We can print things we can’t design.” At Metafold, we’re aiming to change that. 

Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing?

Elissa: I’m motivated by our customers, who do remarkable things using 3D printing. Whether bioreactors, chromatography devices, filters, carbon capture devices, orthotics, or heat exchangers, I’ve encountered many people pushing the boundaries of manufacturing innovation using 3D printing. They are persistent because they are driven by the benefits they see in the outcome — more efficient, optimized application parts. Additionally, my co-founder Tom’s ability to effortlessly design, print, and manage the complete manufacturing process, despite its complexities, is deeply inspiring.

Bioreactors (Copyright: Metafold 3D)

What motivates you the most for your work? 

Elissa: Conversations with people realizing the transformative potential of 3D printing to unlock new, better, more efficient, and more sustainable ways to manufacture things motivate me immensely. One of the critical capabilities of 3D printing is the ability to pack surface area into small volumes, usually through a triply periodic minimal surface (TPMS). These are great because they provide increased surface area, especially for biotech applications—for example, cell growth, filtration, or tissue adhesion. And I think we are only scratching the surface (pun intended!) of the possibilities of the methodology.

What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Elissa: Well, I’m three years into cofounding and being the CEO of a startup, which is all kinds of challenging! It truly makes the math PhD look like a piece of cake! Operating under an incredible amount of uncertainty is the defining feature. 

At the same time, it is fascinating. I don’t have any ‘solutions,’ but I can say that working with incredible people keeps me going every day. Building a team to work on complex problems has been amazing; it is all about those relationships.

Simulation (Copyright: Metafold 3D)

What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Elissa: As everyone knows, there are plenty of challenges in 3D printing and bio-printing. A focus for me, of course, is on the mathematical and geometric challenges, where we see three fundamental problems: 

  1. Design. Antiquated CAD systems lead to long design iteration cycles for the new shapes enabled by additive manufacturing. 
  2. Simulation. High surface area shapes are notoriously difficult to simulate with conventional FEA. 
  3. Automation. When engineers find a geometry generation method that works, it can be hard to commercialize the innovation without a lot of software development expertise. For example, we have customers who are generating geometry for custom orthotics. They have a workflow in a conventional CAD tool, but this is not an easy tool for most non-expert clinicians to use when interfacing with patients. They need a way to build a simplified digital interface to generate orthotic geometry from patient data for manufacturing. 

These three challenges are what we are tackling at Metafold. We have a web application for design and engineering that makes it super easy to take advantage of all the geometric possibilities of 3D printing. We’ve integrated (meshless) simulation into the online experience, making it a seamless workflow with more performance information available to the designer/engineer. And finally, we have an API so users can automate their workflow and build scaleable online CAD tools for specific applications like the orthotics example above.

If a higher being granted you three wishes, what would they be? 

Elissa: Right now, I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s not really that I want more hours, though, just that I’d somehow like the ability to slow down or stretch out time. I wish I could do that pinching motion you do on a tablet to zoom in and out, but on all of life.

I know the clever thing to do here is to ask for infinite wishes, but I’m just going to call it that one wish about time.

Metamaterials (Copyright: Metafold 3D)

What advice would you give to an intelligent, driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice have you heard that they should ignore? 

Elissa: A piece of obvious but essential advice I got when I struggled in graduate school was just: get the degree, because then you have it, and it becomes a rubber stamp for you going forward. This is especially important if you have unusual interests (I studied math and visual art). 

Beyond that, you can’t go wrong with math. It’s an incredible thing to study, and math professors are comically hopeless at knowing what you can do with a math degree. The world needs problem solvers; nothing trains you for this better than math. 

Finally, there is one piece of advice that doesn’t get talked about enough: No one in the world will have as significant an impact on your professional career as your choice of life partner (the impact on your personal life is evident). But I think this is probably impossible advice to hear when you are in your twenties. 

What to ignore? Any recommendations to FOCUS should probably be discarded. A breadth of experience leads to richer insights and the ability to make connections. I have passionately pursued interdisciplinarity and collaboration throughout my career, and it’s never steered me wrong!

Related Links:

Interview with Jade Myers: Designing 3D Printed Prosthetics

Design for 3D Printed Medical Devices (On Demand Video)

Designing and Equipping 3D Bioprinting Facilities

Robert Pugliese: Design for Healthcare with 3DPrinting (Podcast)

Virtual Reality Software For Molecular Modeling and Structure-Based Drug Design