Alysia Garmulewicz Profile
Alysia Garmulewicz (British Columbia & Brasenose 2009) is the Co-Founder and CEO of Matterscape, a data platform for 3D printing materials. She is also completing a DPhil in Management Research at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, where she has focused on 3D printing, the decentralization of production and local supply networks. Alysia also holds an MPhil in Geography and the Environment from the University of Oxford, and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Carleton University.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What have been significant experiences for you?
Alysia Garmulewicz: I have been here for 5 years and I’m still at Oxford, so I haven’t had the distance yet to encapsulate the whole experience. But I think my time at Oxford has been the best of my life. There are a couple of things that stand out. Back in my first few years, I was truly astounded by the intensity of personal experiences you had with fellow people at Rhodes House, in college and in class. The real care that people had for the work they were doing and the kind of purpose they wanted to pursue both professionally and personally was very remarkable—I felt excited by that as well as challenged by it.
I think as well the beauty of Oxford is tied to the university itself being so well integrated into the town. There is this seamlessness between the personal and the scholarly life, such that you are going to lectures and doing individual work but also having really stimulating and expanding conversations with close friends.
I decided to stay in Oxford to complete a DPhil for a number of reasons, one being the feeling that I hadn’t really gotten under the skin of Oxford even after two years. Oxford is such a complex and multi-layered place and I certainly felt like I had more to discover that was relevant to my interests. I felt like I could go further in connecting with people that were pursuing interests like mine and that I could learn from them and hopefully study with them.
Rhodes Project: While at Oxford, you have completed the MPhil in Geography and the Environment and you are now reading for a DPhil at the Said Business School with a focus on 3D printing and the ‘circular economy’ (which refers to industrial economic systems that produce no waste and pollution). How did you transition into this area of research? Does it have a connection to your earlier work on climate change and sustainability?
Alysia Garmulewicz: Yes, certainly, I see the connections very directly but there have been some interesting shifts. The transition from geography to the business school was a choice made to learn more about the way in which business ecosystems function. I was interested in the business side of sustainability. I also definitely went through a shift in terms of my focus on technology and 3D printing, and this change was inspired by two threads of experiences.
The first thread was my transition from working on climate change to thinking about how industrial ecosystems could function more like natural ecosystems from a material flow perspective. In terms of mitigating climate change, we know what we’re trying to prevent, but we don’t really have concrete ideas of the types of systems that are good for the earth. So the purpose of that shift was to look at models and ideas that can take inspiration from nature so that one industry’s output can be another industry’s input. During my DPhil, I started look at the recycling of materials from a much more empirical angle and noticed a very puzzling structural issue that there are a lot of decentralized waste sources—there is a lot of garbage at many different scales—small bits of waste, everywhere. But then you have systems of production that are by contrast extremely centralized. Manufacturing today is very large scale and economies of scale dominate many systems of production. This creates a massive structural barrier in being able to collect all these little bits of waste and pipe them into a centralized production system. You also have a huge amount of information loss due to aggregation. This made me question why we can’t start to cycle materials like we do in the natural world.
The second thread is my introduction to 3D printing. I became aware of it through the work of Janine Benyus, who made the interesting point that natural organisms already engage in it—they take nutrients, layer in information and build up fabulous structures. I immediately started connecting this to my work on production scales. For example, if you can start to fabricate complex goods anywhere on the planet, you can start to change the scale at which production happens. This is happening not just with 3D printing but with digital fabrication in general, and it’s paving the way for a more decentralized production system. This logic of production is so different from the mass manufacturing systems we have now that include assembly lines and economies of scale. This is more about economies of scope. And if we can start to produce complex goods anywhere, perhaps we can also use materials that are highly valuable in small quantities. So, 3D printing changes the scale at which production can happen and that is fundamental for thinking about how materials cycle in our global economy.
Rhodes Project: What role do you believe 3D printing will play in our society? What political or social issues around 3D printing are top-of-mind for you?
Alysia Garmulewicz: What I’ve observed in my fieldwork and in working in this space is that, from a societal point of view, what is really special about the technology is that it allows people to engage in fabricating complex goods that will, in the next few years I think, rival the quality of goods we have now. The means of production are actually becoming democratized—that is a huge shift, and I think we are just scratching the surface of what that actually means.
What intrigues me most is the potential to fabricate high quality goods locally, anywhere on the planet. When you consider issues of resource dependency in developing countries, one big challenge is that they don’t have the manufacturing capabilities to be self-sufficient in producing complex goods. Their primary resources are being sent out and they are needing to buy many of their tertiary goods. 3D printing brings a revival of capabilities for any given place to make things. I think that is a powerful force. From a sustainability perspective, I also find this very interesting. If you look at the natural world, there is no such thing as waste—waste equals food in natural systems. Nutrients can be used for fabricating any number of things. The idea that we can actually use nutrients around us to fabricate whatever we need is the dream that I see digital fabrication pushing us towards. And the important key here is being able to track and cycle materials for distributed production.
Rhodes Project: How does your current research fit with your plans post-Oxford?
Alysia Garmulewicz: I am working on a startup at the moment called Matterscape that is creating a data platform for 3D printing materials. The gap we are trying to fill is this need for low-cost distributed means for testing and characterizing materials, sharing data, using data for 3D modelling and hopefully incentivizing people to engage in local material markets. The idea is to create an open source platform where people can characterize materials, manufacture them locally, upload their data and share it.
I also have a university position at the University of Santiago in Chile that starts this year, so my fiancé and I will be moving there. The professorship is in the area of high tech entrepreneurship, so it is very much an applied research position. My work on the startup overlaps with the field of research I want to pursue, which includes researching how waste resources could be used as 3D printing materials for local economies. So the startup is one piece of it, but there is also a larger research agenda which I aim to contribute to.
Rhodes Project: What does good leadership look like for you in the context of 3D printing and other novel technologies that are transforming our world?
Alysia Garmulewicz: I think leadership in this particular field is marked by a commitment to sharing information and building community. Perhaps that’s a wider statement for today’s world, but certainly what you see among small and medium-sized enterprises working on 3D printing is a real commitment to sharing ideas, information and innovations, and building communities that can empower more people to engage in this revolution around digital fabrication. I saw this especially in the Fab Lab community that I did my fieldwork with.
Rhodes Project: You have participated in varsity squash at Oxford, and previously you were a Nordic skier and member of Carleton University’s ski team. How have these athletic pursuits shaped your life?
Alysia Garmulewicz: For a long time, cross-country skiing was the main focus of my life. When I started my studies at Carleton, I was primarily a ski racer. At a certain point, I had to decide between committing 100 percent of my life to skiing as a career path—at least for the foreseeable future—or shifting into other areas of focus that I also enjoyed. It took a while to make the decision and I had to think very deeply, but I realized I couldn’t give up my love of sustainability and climate change issues. And there is so much intellectual excitement that I get from this work that I am glad I changed tracks.
However, I skied for a very long time, since the age of six, and it has given me an ethos of healthy living for life. The other benefit has been the discipline that it instils in terms of the hours that you spend training and pushing yourself. More recently, my involvement in squash has been a nice middle ground—it hasn’t required the same intensity, but it gives me the opportunity for teamwork, competition and learning a new sport, which is just a pleasure.
Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life, personally and professionally? Have role models or mentors given you memorable advice?
Alysia Garmulewicz: Two things immediately come to mind. One is that I think my parents have been formative role models from both professional and personal standpoints. On the professional side, it is less about overt lessons but rather my desire to emulate them. They both truly love what they do, and I think that is what one should have as a career—something that truly excites you and something you don’t treat as work. This is what I think about when I consider the different paths I could take, with some leaning more towards excitement and a strong sense of purpose.
The other thought on mentorship is that when I was trying to accelerate my current business idea from something abstract to concrete, I was paired with a great mentor and at one point, he really gave me a nice reality check. In the process of trying to figure out my business model, my financial strategy, the startup ecosystem and the language of entrepreneurship, I had completely lost trying to communicate why I cared in the first place. This mentor is a very serious businessman himself, and he said, “I just don’t get the vision of this anymore”. It was an important reminder of the fact that in communicating your work, people also think about why you care and the purpose behind it.
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