Right now there are 24.9 million people trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
It is a gendered crisis: 71% of people who have been trafficked are women and girls.
One reason so many young women find themselves at risk is because of a lack of education, says Katherine Prescott, the cofounder of Free-D, a business offering training in 3D-printed jewelry design.
“They don’t have a high level of skill or literacy skills, which means that job opportunities are really low, and it’s through the search of trying to find employment that many get taken advantage of,” she explains.
Today Free-D—a portmanteau of “3D” and “freed”—isn’t just empowering human trafficking survivors. It also aims to train up all kinds of vulnerable women, who might be homeless or escaping domestic violence, or “at risk”, so they too can find stable long-term jobs.
It’s also just been accepted onto F-Lane, the Vodafone Institute’s Berlin-based female empowerment business accelerator—an experience Prescott describes as “dying and going to feminist heaven”.
“Te startup space in London is not necessarily focused on impact but at F-Lane, where people are all from all different backgrounds, they all care.”
Prescott has drawn up a business plan to take Free-D global and will be pitching next month at the Re:publica digital forum in Berlin and the Arch Summit in Luxembourg.
How Free-D works
Katherine Prescott started Free-D in London in 2016 with cofounder Siavash Mahdavi. Both had spent numerous years working in 3D-printing, having met at Mahdavi’s 3D software startup Within Technologies (acquired by Autodesk for $88.5 million in 2011).
Run from offices in Battersea, the pair decided that the best testbed for Free-D would be India, where 14 million women live in slavery, and even those who find freedom are not safe (40% are forced back into slavery due to failed rehabilitation efforts).
The startup partnered with NGOs like The Shanta Foundation (which supports vulnerable women in India), and manufacturers like Imaginarium (the biggest 3D-printing company in India) to run a series of one-to-three day workshops throughout 2017.
Getting her homemade 3D printer around bustling Mumbai in an Uber wasn’t always easy, but seeing how quickly women went from being “fearful of computers to laughing, joking and making things” spurred Prescott on.
Now, Free-D has launched its first longterm pilot in Mumbai which will take place over nine months: 10 women are benefitting from the combination of psychological support and 3D-printing training on the programme, which closes with internships at Imaginarium.
“We’re trying to build up a curriculum that can take someone from having zero skills up to being an expert in the field,” says Prescott.
Transforming Free-D into a global business
Although the company is currently being self-funded by Mahdavi (with around £100,000 ring-fenced toward funding the pilot), Prescott hopes to later raise a further £500,000 to enable the business to scale internationally.
Part of this will include ensuring that Free-D can grow into a profitable business. “We’ve seen so many NGOs all chasing after the same pots of money,” notes Prescott.
In future, the main source of Free-D’s revenue will come from companies paying to support the training of future employees, says Prescott.
“We’re actually solving a big problem for the manufacturers who are adopting 3D-printing,” she explains. “There’s a big talent gap, globally not just in India.”
Different programmes could also be developed for different geographies, which could work on a “buy-one-fund-one model”, adds the founder.
Prescott is keen to see the Free-D platform grow outside of India, noting the presence of global 3D-printing firms (and potential partners) like Materialize (which has factories in Germany, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic) and Shapeways (which has factories in Eindhoven in The Netherlands, and Queens, and Seattle in the U.S.).
Even brands like Adidas (which is currently investing in customization-first SpeedFactories) could be involved, says Prescott: “If customization is the way the market is going, there’s going to be a lot of these spaces springing up, and a need for talent.”
Could Prescott’s ambition to become the “go-to education company” for 3D-printing see her social ambitions flourish?
For the sake of the millions in modern-day slavery, we hope so.