From Estonia to Boston: GrabCAD Looks to Play Big Role in New England’s Tech Future

8/23/11Follow @gthuang

There’s something about Estonia. Maybe it’s the Skype phenomenon—the Estonian-born company (now part of Microsoft) certainly helped create a strong culture of engineering there. But the Baltic nation of 1.4 million seems to have a greater concentration of engineers and technical talent than almost anyplace else.

That’s probably an exaggeration, but at least one recent Boston-area company hails from there—GrabCAD, a nine-person startup that graduated from the TechStars Boston incubator program in June. If all goes well, the company, which splits its staff between Cambridge, MA, and Tallinn (the Estonian capital), will do its part to advance a traditional strength of the local tech scene. That would be computer-aided design, or CAD software, the means by which most technical components we take for granted are designed and built—and the basis of iconic companies like Parametric Technology (PTC), SolidWorks/Dassault Systèmes, and Autodesk.

GrabCAD has built an online community and marketplace that connects mechanical engineers with people and companies who need stuff built—everything from auto parts and motorcycles to custom furniture, toys, and mobile devices. The startup provides a Facebook-style feed where users can see other engineers coming online, uploading their designs, and looking for business. That also means the company is accumulating a large library of CAD models and tutorials that engineers and companies can use as a resource, says co-founder and CEO Hardi Meybaum.

Last week, GrabCAD unveiled a new dimension to its offerings. It is letting companies host their own design contests to take on specific engineering challenges, such as building a new ventilation system for a luxury yacht or designing a new kind of electrical “superbike.” Engineers upload their designs in response, and the companies choose the winners and award them cash prizes.

Meybaum, 29, and his co-founder Indrek Narusk—they went to Tallinn University of Technology together—started working on a product development company back in 2007. They got some customers, but they found running the business took too much of their creative time.

Around 2009, when GrabCAD started working on its current idea, the founders “didn’t meet anyone who said it’s going to work,” Meybaum says. People thought (and still think) the company would get besieged by orders for impossibly complex designs like rockets, for example. But in fact its first order was for some type of bearing for a car. The second order was a hand drawing for a certain kind of wheelbarrow. The guy who sent in the order received his CAD renderings, which he could then take to a manufacturer, in an hour.

That was all well and good, but the founders didn’t want to spend all their time on CAD drawings. “We didn’t want to do it as a two-man company for the rest of our lives. So we thought, let’s hire some engineers. We hadn’t even heard the term ‘VC.’ We were two guys trying to build a company,” Meybaum says.

Fast forward to today—through word of mouth, some Google advertising, and venture funding to the tune of $1.1 million from Atlas Venture, Matrix Partners, and other investors. GrabCAD’s community now includes almost 20,000 mechanical engineers, mostly in the U.S. but also in Europe and Brazil. They are working with a wide variety of products, Meybaum says—“not a rocket yet, but some are very sophisticated.”

GrabCAD is looking to hire a few more people in Boston, mostly in sales and marketing. It plans to keep its software development team in Estonia. The company will probably raise another financing round next year, Meybaum says.

Meybaum has been based in the Boston area since last fall but still spends a fair bit of time in his native land. He even had an audience with the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, over coffee recently. They talked about how Skype’s success led to Estonia’s creating a direct flight between Tallinn and London. Meybaum joked with the President that he should consider starting service between Tallinn and Boston.

All the Massachusetts companies desperately looking for developer talent these days wouldn’t mind that either. Meybaum seems singularly focused on what his startup can achieve here—though admittedly it’s still very early, and GrabCAD has a long way to go.

“We want to play a big role in the future of CAD,” he says. “Not everybody has to build a mobile company. We’re all about the Internet, but there’s still a real world out there.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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