Samantha Snabes (‘06 BS, BA CASL, ‘11 MBA COB) has wanted to be an astronaut for so long she doesn’t remember a time when that wasn’t the goal. It’s not a totally unique childhood dream, of course, but Snabes’ has proved durable. Now 41, she still very much wants to go to space, and in fact, has measured many life choices against whether they can help her get there. That focus has led her to do all kinds of bold things, starting from an early age. When she was 8 years old, she went to Space Camp, and after she got home, she cross referenced the astronaut directory in one of the take-home brochures with the white pages, calling up any astronauts with Michigan phone numbers. A few days later, Tony England, a veteran of the Apollo and Space Shuttle era and the now-retired dean of UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, left her a voicemail. It led to a memorable meeting between the two and some practical advice: “I asked him what I needed to do to become an astronaut, and he said ‘go to college.’”
Snabes held tight to England’s advice, but getting to college wasn’t going to be straightforward. Aside from two aunts, no one in her family had a college diploma, and she was going to have to get creative to find the financial resources for college. The thing she had going for her was she was a standout student: Snabes was the valedictorian of her class and Wayne-Westland’s Senior of the Year. So using money she saved from grooming dogs and cleaning horse stalls, she sent in her college applications. She got in almost everywhere she applied — including Cornell. She assumed the admissions would come with offers of financial support, but the only place offering a scholarship was a college in Missouri. Her grandparents encouraged her to go for it, and after graduation, she packed up her things and headed to Springfield.
Snabes remembers many things about college being a struggle. She never had money for the current editions of textbooks, so she got by with older versions and loaners from the library. Often the reason her grades were so erratic was her out-of-date books literally didn’t contain the required reading. “I think the culture is a lot different now, but I don't think it even really occurred to me to ask for help,” Snabes says. “I didn’t have the resources and it felt like there was a stigma around that. Everyone else had their laptops, the right books, and seemed to know all these things that I didn’t. I think it’s just sort of who I am, but I tried to figure things out on my own and push my way through it.” Despite the challenges, Snabes ultimately leveraged a lot of credits she earned there on scholarship into a transfer to UM-Dearborn. Continuing her education meant taking out lots of student loans, and like many first-gen students, she got tripped up navigating the conventions of the university system. She remembers that when she first transferred, someone encouraged her to pick a major and she "didn't even know what a major was." She said “astrophysics,” one the university didn’t offer, and then chose Biology based on someone’s suggestion that it might be a good fit given her love of science. Knowing of her ultimate dream, one of her professors suggested she should try to get some research experience, and she found a spot doing bench work in a start-up at a UM-Ann Arbor lab that was working with stem cells.
She half-jokingly says she was the “janitor” of the lab team, because her entry-level spot meant she did a lot of cleaning and prep work. But Snabes really shined in the lab. Her particular role involved using specialized hardware to grow stem cells, and she viewed keeping them alive as a personal challenge. Often she would drive back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor twice a day just to check on “my cells,” and her lab notebooks from that time are decorated with doodles of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas trees. At one point, their team set a record for keeping cells alive and regenerating in the device they were testing for more than a year. In fact, Snabes played a crucial part in that success. When she joined the team, the project was in a Phase II trial, and they were facing some challenges with lower than expected cell counts. One day, she asked if the trouble they were having keeping the cells alive might have something to do with the silver in the felt matrix they were growing them on. One of the investigators asked what she was thinking and she explained she remembered from her days making Halloween costumes for her younger siblings that felt often contains a silver ion, which gives it some antimicrobial properties. Ultimately it led to a discovery that the team had been unknowingly using off-the-shelf hobby-grade felt that did in fact contain silver. When they switched to medical grade, the cells took off, and so did the then-stalled project.
Snabes’ prowess in the lab ultimately led to her getting her name on the patent and another big opportunity. The start-up team had made rights to the technology available so others could build on the work, and the supervisor whom Snabes worked mostly closely with happened to be a serial entrepreneur. One day, the two went out to lunch and he asked if she’d be interested in using the technology to start a company. The idea, hatched in a Korean restaurant in an Ann Arbor strip mall, eventually grew into Bioflow, which they launched in 2006. Over the next few years, they built up a client roster for their cell culture systems, but for a variety of reasons, selling the company became a better proposition than continuing to build it. She said looking back, they didn’t get the best deal, but it allowed them to pay off their debts and get a fresh start with other opportunities.
For all of Snabes’ talents, instincts, and worth ethic in the lab, it was still just a means to an end in some ways. Getting into the astronaut program was still on her mind, and she was still making unconventional decisions to get there. During her time at UM-Dearborn, she had applied several times to NASA’s Microgravity University, a program where undergraduates get to conduct experiments in a low-gravity environment. The highlight is a chance to ride in the “Vomit Comet” — NASA’s modified KC-135 aircraft that flies to 33,000 feet and then sharply nose dives for 30 seconds so passengers can experience something very close to weightlessness. Snabes caught NASA’s attention with her first pitch: A blood clotting experiment that proposed using herself as a test subject. The advisers wrote back they couldn’t sanction a project where she cut herself, and she wouldn’t have sufficient time for the blood to clot anyway. But they loved her inventiveness and encouraged her to assemble another student team and apply again. The second time, she and her group from UM-Dearborn got in. But then federal funding snags delayed their scheduled trip in the Vomit Comet. That was a big deal, because Snabes was set to graduate and the program was only for undergrads. So she postponed her graduation, enrolling in enough classes to complete a Psychology minor. Additional student loan debt was more than worth the chance to fly.
Snabes’ ride in the Vomit Comet stands out as one of the highlights of her life. The photo of her, arms across her chest, somersaulting in the air, a relaxed smile on her face, is still her LinkedIn profile picture. It’s worth mentioning that many people don’t have such a good time. The Vomit Comet is so named because most people get violently nauseous when their body is suddenly propelled into near weightlessness. (For Snabes, that didn’t happen until the celebratory meal afterward in which she says she ate way too many Chinese donuts.) The reason why the moment is still so important to her is straightforward enough: Given the competitiveness of the astronaut program, she knows she might not ever get in, and spinning weightlessly for a few seconds might be the closest she ever gets to space. The mental images of it all are still thrilling and vivid, “exactly the feeling you have when you’re flying in a dream.” Only for Snabes, she experiences it with the realness of memory.
The experience also broke open a new series of opportunities. Snabes didn’t know it at the time, but NASA was looking to recruit a couple people from the program to advocate on Capitol Hill about the value of the space program to regular citizens. She was happy to do it, and in the course of that work, she learned that a life sciences group at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center needed a strategist — ideally, “a hip, under 30-something, who was a successful entrepreneur, had recently exited a company, had an MBA, and is passionate about space.” Having recently started an MBA through UM-Dearborn’s online program, Snabes resume checked all the boxes, and in the end, she didn’t even have to formally interview for the job. Once she had an in at NASA, other dominos started to tumble. Her job description at the agency was so loose, it gave her “carte blanche” to explore almost anything that sounded interesting to her. More importantly, she was finally fully amongst her people — engineers, scientists and innovators who could talk all day and all night about big ideas and how they could change the world. Her volunteer time with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) was particularly formative, and through contacts with EWB and NASA, she finally got a chance to do something she never had the money to do: travel. As the social entrepreneur in residence for NASA headquarters, she traveled to Rwanda, Nicarauga and Mexico, exploring opportunities for the agency to do more social impact work. Looking back, it was a big turning point. “What I realized is that we spend a lot of time and money trying to get resources into countries, and all these brilliant people from NASA were training people on whatever solutions we had,” she says. “But then I’d see abandoned mounds of medical equipment that were the wrong voltage or couldn’t be maintained sitting outside of a hospital.” For Snabes, it seemed like there had to be a better way.
Around this time, Snabes and some like-minded friends and colleagues were getting really into something that could be part of that better way. Many of the patents on key parts of 3D printing technology were expiring, allowing researchers and entrepreneurs to build on the hardware in new ways. She was particularly interested in the idea of open-source 3D printing — a paradigm in which the designs, software and printing technology could be deployed inexpensively to people, allowing communities to manufacture solutions for real problems. Enabling people to make their own things at lower costs was the exact antithesis to the bigger budget aid strategies Snabes had seen falter at times. The only problem was the technology at the time was limited, particularly by size: Inexpensive 3D printers were still pretty small and could only print small things. “People would be really into the idea, but then they’d ask to see an example of something you could make, and inevitably someone would have something small, like an iPhone case or a Yoda head.” They were still a ways away from being able to print things folks told her they were interested in, like limb prosthetics, birthing stools, composting toilets, and tools, to name a few.
Snabes realized they’d have to literally start thinking bigger. A larger printer could print larger, more useful stuff, and hours and hours of conversations with her friends and colleagues eventually coalesced around an aspirational goal to design and build a large-format “3D printer the size of a toilet for under $10,000.” At the time, she said she didn’t see it as starting her next company, and in fact, she shopped the idea around at NASA and EWB first, thinking they might go for it. When it didn’t find a home with either, they scored $40,000 to build a prototype, which they debuted at SXSW at the Start-up Chile tent in 2013. A writer from TechCrunch was one of the first to see it demoed and put it on the front page of the website. In less than two days, their Kickstarter campaign was fully funded.
With the spike of unexpected interest, Snabes and her co-founder dove right into starting the business. Now re:3D ships its large-format Gigbot printers all over the world, including a new model that can print directly from plastic waste. For every hundred they sell, they also give one away to a person or group using it for social good. Their website is full of interesting testimonials. There’s a Nigerian engineer using his Gigabot to develop new filament technology and spur micro-manufacturing. A Kenyan charity is printing parts to repair medical equipment and water distribution infrastructure. In Portland, a nonprofit is using theirs to make some pretty epic custom costumes for kids in wheelchairs.
Though re:3D has garnered a ton of attention and goodwill, Snabes is clear that the business is still firmly in the start-up phase. Competition for large-format printing has grown since they started the business, and recruiting investors for a company devoted to a social mission is a different endeavor than if they were just trying to make money. “We’re definitely not a high-growth company, so whether or not you see us as successful depends, I guess, on how you measure success,” Snabes says. But she says it never occurs to her to doubt the mission, and feels thankful that all the unexpected plot twists in her life have led her here. “I recognize that as a woman who didn’t have a ton of financial resources to draw on and who didn’t grow up with an expectation to go to college, things could be working out differently. Now, I’ve had the chance to start two companies, and I basically get to get up everyday and do whatever I want. That’s incredibly rare, and I’m really humbled that that’s my life right now.”
She also hasn’t given up on space, and is still doing everything she can to make herself an attractive astronaut candidate. It’s completely possible that given the current interest in long-range space travel, experiments with 3D-printing could well be her ticket there. And though re:3D can feel all-consuming, she still makes time to serve as a major in Mississippi’s Air National Guard. She enlisted 13 years ago on her lunch break at NASA — partly to help pay bills, partly to make her application to the astronaut program stronger. But it’s since turned into a big part of her life. There are lots of stereotypes about the Guard, she says, but for her, it’s another community of problem solvers who ultimately want to help people. Whether it’s the Guard, or her 3D-printing work, or the sum of all her adventures that’s the difference maker this time, she figures she has one more good shot before she’s “too old” to be an astronaut. However it shakes out, her hustle has already fueled a wild ride.
Story by Lou Blouin