2021 Most Disruptive Business School Startups: 3DuxDesign, Washington University (Olin)


Washington University, Olin Business School

Industry: Education, Retail

Founding Student Name(s): Ayana Klein (Washington University in St. Louis, 2022), Ethan Klein (Northeastern University, 2025)

Brief Description of Solution: 3DuxDesign is a social enterprise with a mission to make STEM education accessible to all children. Our patent-pending modeling system transforms ordinary repurposed cardboard into an educational building tool that is open-ended, widely accessible, affordable and environmentally friendly. We offer a variety of products that range from retail kits for use in the home to bulk educational kits and curricula for use in school, maker spaces and after-school enrichment programs.

Used with our community-centered design challenges, children are inspired to imagine, design and connect with students across the globe as they work together to build solutions to real-world modern problems. In the process, students learn STEM fundamentals along with the softer 21st century human skills of creativity, compassion, collaboration and communication.

Completed student projects are presented on the 3DuxDesign Global Student Showcase, an online platform dedicated to empowering youth as they share their own stories and innovative solutions with a global audience. The Showcase also supports global connectivity as students explore projects and distant communities, cultures and challenges directly from the children that live there.

Inspired by early positive feedback from children, parents, educators and industry professionals, we have developed our online project-based learning platform “3DuxUniversity,” which is a rapidly growing community of thought leaders from diverse professions across the globe, visionaries who are committed to challenging the next generation to use their imagination and skills as they design solutions to modern-day problems. The 3DuxUniversity “faculty members” have a unique opportunity to share their own life’s work by hosting a wide range of design challenges for youth, posted on the 3DuxDesign website.

Encouraged by ongoing community response (and an endless supply of photos from happy customers) we have developed a more extensive, standards-aligned curriculum and an online platform that will allow classrooms to directly upload and share their projects with an expanding 3DuxDesign community of change-makers. This program, “Creating Communities,” is currently in pilot phase. It will be subscription-based and offer the unique value of learning in the context of global community that goes way beyond the four walls of the classroom.

What led you to launch this venture? I was first inspired to launch 3DuxDesign during a summer architecture program at Columbia University, NYC while still in high school. I appreciated the way architects think not only about the beauty of a space when they design but also about the people who use that space; what their needs are and how good design can improve the lives of the people who use that space. I also appreciated that through architecture, urban design and the design thinking process, I was inspired to better understand the needs individuals, the community as a whole and the need to design for a sustainable future. I was also inspired to learn more about technology, not specifically because I enjoy it (technology and I have a love-hate relationship),  but because I need to use those tools to design a better world.

It was the first time during my education that I truly felt the need to use my knowledge and skills for something that I felt could actually make a difference in the world. But I was also frustrated that it took until 10th grade for me to feel that excited about learning. So, I decided to develop an architectural modeling set for younger children with a mission to blend the arts, humanity and open-ended creative thinking with modern STEM education. With the help of my younger brother, Ethan, we engineered the 3DuxDesign cardboard-based modeling system, making use of the most ubiquitous and recyclable material in the world, the corrugated box.

I feel that most building sets on the market limit young children’s creativity with pre-formed, rigidly designed and costly kits while cardboard is free, sustainable and limitless in form. In under four years, what began as a fun entrepreneurial 3D printed prototype sold at local farmers markets, has become a full line of products and curriculum. 3DuxDesign is now used in thousands of homes, classrooms, makers spaces, after school programs and museums across 15 countries and counting.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Just this week, we were week notified of our honorable mention at the Fast Company Innovation By Design Awards. Seeing our product regarded among teams from industry-leading design schools like MIT Media Lab, IIT Institute of Design and Carnegie Melon is something that we would have never imagined four years ago at our product launch at a community farmers’ market.

That said, I think the greatest accomplishment is really seeing firsthand the impact we are making on the next generation. From traveling to an orphanage in Haiti to working directly with the children to running a program at a housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut to zooming with 100 first graders in Iowa as they proudly share their 3Dux inventions, the sense of impact is unparalleled.

How has your business-related major helped you further this startup venture? Majoring in entrepreneurship at Washington University has helped me further 3DuxDesign in countless ways. The support from my professors has been incredible. They have provided me with several opportunities from pitching at events such as the Pipeline Entrepreneurs Final Showcase in Kansas City and the Global Impact Award (where I was awarded a $20,000 grant). I have also benefitted from working with peers in my classes, talking with them about ways I can grow my company and attending pitch at events like the Olin Big Ideas Bounce. Support from the Olin community has been incredible as they continuously encourage me and listen to my multiple iterations of pitches before a final presentation.

Which business class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Junior year, I took a course called The Hatchery. This is a course that includes both undergrad and graduate MBA students. On the first day of class, every student has the opportunity to pitch a business idea, so I pitched 3Dux and proceeded to network with my class peers and built a group where we would put together a full-length, formal business plan and investor pitch throughout the semester. I thought this course was one of the most valuable business courses I have taken as I was able to experience 3DuxDesign from a new dimension. As a sibling-run company, my brother and I are often working inside our own bubble. Learning to work with other students and professionals and take constructive feedback from my peers, professors and industry experts has been invaluable.

What business professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Throughout my experience at Washington University, I have had several professors who took the time to meet with me and offer advice on my growing company. For that, I am really grateful. However, there have been a few professors who really contributed to my plans.

First is Professor Doug Villhard, an entrepreneurship professor in WashU Olin Business School. Throughout his course, the Hatchery, Professor Villhard pushed me to learn how to be a great team leader, which ultimately lead to success in receiving the first-place award when presenting the final 3DuxDesign investor pitch at the end of the semester to over fifty judges.

Another professor who has taken hours of her time to support me in my journey is Professor Gay Lorberbaum, a professor in Sam Fox School of Art and Design. I first met Professor Lorberbaum as a freshman where I took one of her design classes. Since this first class with her, she has spent countless hours meeting with me and listening to and supporting my growing company and overall life aspirations. Professor Lorberbaum has also been a true inspiration as she has dedicated her life to supporting and helping young children throughout St. Louis who live in extreme poverty by providing them with the educational and physical resources they need to thrive in the world. Over the past three years, seeing all her hard work firsthand has truly inspired me to continue and grow 3DuxDesign so I too can make a positive impact on young students around the world.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? 3DuxDesign is just getting started! Our grand vision is to create an annual 3DuxDesign Innovation Expo, a global celebration of youth creativity, innovation and empowerment for students inspired to design solutions for a sustainable and equitable future. Our EXPO will be in collaboration with leading partners from the most innovative forces in higher education and corporate industry and will showcase student projects from around the world.


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