Desktop Factory Inc. is about to disappear.

The Pasadena-based company, which built a printing device that could produce 3-D sculptures, announced two weeks ago that it had run out of cash. Cathy Lewis, the company's chief executive and its lone remaining employee, told the Business Journal the company had an interested buyer and expected a deal to close within the next month.

Desktop Factory, which was spun out of incubator IdeaLab in 2004, offered so-called 3-D printers primarily to businesses and schools for $5,000 each. Users would design a three-dimensional model on computers and Desktop Factory's printing device would then build the model out of plastic powder. Possible buyers included architects who could use the printer to make a model building, or a geologist who could use it to make a model landscape.

The company was among a wave of startups trying to popularize 3-D printing, and for a while it enjoyed success. In mid-2007, Desktop Factory had around 22 employees and deposits for 115 printers.

But 3-D printing failed to go mainstream because of the expense and limited market. Desktop Factory also struggled to get its product into testing as it burned through the money raised from IdeaLab.

"It was always a long shot," Lewis said. "It was always going to be several years out before the full vision was realized."

Earlier this year, Desktop Factory was on the verge of raising $3 million. But Lewis said the lead investor, venture firm Sofinnova Partners of Paris, pulled out a day before the deal closed. So Desktop Factory decided to lay off employees and seek a sale. Sofinnova declined to comment.

Lewis declined to specify Desktop Factory's sale price or identify the prospective buyer, but said it was a company already in the printing business. Meanwhile, Desktop Factory has issued refunds to customers who put down deposits.

Lewis said she did not plan to stay on with Desktop Factory's new parent company.

"At the end of the month, I'll probably dust off my resume and see what's next for me," she said.

Airborne Wi-Fi

Row 44 Inc. is ready for takeoff.

Now that the Westlake Village company has secured a permanent operating license from the Federal Communications Commission, it can start serious negotiations with airlines to equip their entire fleets with its high-speed wireless Internet equipment designed specifically for air travel.

The company's goal is to become the leading high-speed wireless Internet provider for planes cruising 40,000 feet above ground.

The permanent operating license, granted earlier this month, will allow Row 44 to install its satellite-based Wi-Fi system on up to 1,000 planes in the United States. The company was previously operating with a temporary FCC license that allowed it to install devices on a maximum of 20 planes.

"The temporary authorization gave us the ability to perform trials, but it didn't give us the ability to install in entire fleets," said John Guidon, Row 44's chief executive. "This really opens the door for us."

Row 44's license comes at a time when more commercial airlines are experimenting with in-flight Wi-Fi. Continental Airlines Inc. said in January that it would equip some of its fleet with Internet access. And AirTran Airlines Inc. announced in May that it would equip all 136 of its Boeing 737 and 717 jets with Internet access.

Row 44 will have to play catch-up with AirCell Inc., an Itasca, Ill.-based wireless Internet provider that has already outfitted several airlines, including AirTran. Row 44 has so far installed test devices aboard only one plane operated by Alaska Airlines Inc. and four owned by Southwest Airlines Co.

The permanent license paves the way for Row 44 to begin negotiating with those airlines in earnest to equip their entire fleets, Guidon said.

Row 44 is also pursuing opportunities overseas. Later this year, it plans to equip the 40-plane fleet of Norwegian Air Shuttle Sweden Ab, a low-cost European carrier, with wireless Internet. Guidon said Row 44 is bidding for the business of several other European airlines as well.

Pitch a billionaire?

An L.A. consulting firm has come up with a novel way to attract budding entrepreneurs to its upcoming conference: offer them face time with a billionaire.

Venice-based PerfectBusiness.com is accepting candidates through the Web site for its "Perfect Pitch" conference Oct. 26 in Marina del Rey. The entrepreneurs with the three best pitches, as chosen by a panel of judges, will receive free airline tickets; a hotel stay; access to the conference; and a chance to present their idea to Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Records, who has an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Branson will actually invest in any of the pitched ideas. And for those who don't secure a top-three spot, tickets to the one-day conference cost almost $300.

Staff reporter Charles Proctor can be reached at cproctor@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 230.

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