Zink Debuts Inkless Printing at CES—The Technology That Might Have Saved Polaroid

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manufacturing to chemicals, and then bringing the systems together and putting them onto the market,” says Caswell. The implication—though she doesn’t say it in so many words—is that there wasn’t room at Polaroid for innovations that didn’t fit into this model.

“We spun off because we believe that this goes way beyond being an instant photography opportunity,” Caswell says. “We’re working with other brands to build Zink into laptops, set top boxes, game consoles, airplane cockpits, plasma entertainment centers. Our intention is to enable a whole economy or franchise around Zink, like Microsoft did with Windows or Intel did with x86 chips. We believe that working through this network will give the best return on investors’ dollars and the best chance of building a really big company here in Massachusetts.”

Zink hasn’t raised any venture funding and won’t identify its investors, except for White and Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor well known as the author of the bestselling business tome The Innovator’s Dilemma. That book is partly about how established companies can overcome inertia and take advantage of the disruptive technologies bubbling up from their R&D operations—which obviously didn’t happen in the case of Polaroid and Zink’s inkless thermal printing technology.

But as Polaroid emerges from bankruptcy under the ownership of the Petters Group, it has its own new strategy—selling consumer electronics devices under the Polaroid brand—and, ironically enough, it’s Zink’s first partner. “Polaroid’s direction is something that makes incredible sense,” says Caswell. “They’re now in the market for TVs and portable DVD players, and digital cameras will be coming soon. With built-in Zink digital printers, of course.”

Could the old Polaroid, once a pillar of Boston’s technology scene, have survived if it had found a way to act on innovations like zero-ink digital printing? Perhaps, though the technology that Zink pursued wouldn’t have borne fruit soon enough to stave off the parent company’s 2001 bankruptcy and subsequent dismantling. But one thing seems certain: Zink is now in an enviable position to deploy its technology wherever the market calls for it.

“When you have something as new as this, it can go in many different directions,” says Herchen. “And one of the benefits of being spun out and taking private investment is that we’ve got complete freedom to come up with whatever strategy is best for Zink. We can match what the technology is capable of at any point to the opportunities for productizing it; we don’t need to have superimposed on us the larger corporate strategy of some other company.” Spoken like someone who reached the lifeboats just in time.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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