With more entrepreneurs taking product creation into their own hands, makerspaces like TechShop are helping make impactful innovation possible.
Nearly 10 years ago Jim Newton, then a software engineer, found himself in the midst of the dot com crash and in need of a career shift. After spending some time tinkering with robotics, he started teaching a class at his local college. "The only reason I taught the class was so I could get access to the tools," Newton says. He then went on to become a science advisor for a TV show, MythBusters. Again, he says, one of the major advantages of the gig was access to equipment.
When those jobs ended, he decided he needed a shop of his own so he could continue his hands-on passion for developing ideas and inventing design-led, tangible, solutions. Knowing that there were plenty of people out there who, just like him, wanted to make things with their hands but didn't always have the tools to do so, Newton took the membership-driven, automated monthly billing, health club model and applied it to the first ever makerspace of its kind, known as TechShop.
"Entrepreneurs Have Always Been Makers"
A rapidly growing number of innovators are do-it-yourself enthusiasts who constantly see opportunities for new ideas and invention. Coupled with the advancements of technology, these tinkerers, hackers and all-around craftspeople have become known as makers. The makers are driving what many feel is the onset of another Industrial Revolution.
"Entrepreneurs have always been makers," Newton says. "The biggest difference between traditional entrepreneurialism and being a maker is the amount of effort that it takes to engage in a new company or product. With TechShop and makerspaces, people are allowed to dabble as a recreational pursuit. With KickStarter and Indiegogo and all these platforms, you can keep your day job and be a maker on the side. Even just 10 or 20 years ago, you couldn't do that. Finding investors alone used to be a full-time job. Innovation as recreation is possible now."
For about $150 a month, TechShop members gain full-time, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, access to a facility with more than $1 million worth of equipment (like 3D printers and laser cutters) as well as software and, not to be forgotten, the company of other makers.
"Every time you go into our space, you'll see some young, punked-out teen with tattoos talking to a 75-year-old engineer with white hair, and they're collaborating on something," says Newton.
The Maker Movement's Role in Social Enterprise
TechShop has seen the birth of many game-changing products, including Square, the credit card reading device invented by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. It has also proved to be remarkable place for social ventures to grow.
The Embrace Warmer, a baby blanket used in developing countries to incubate premature babies was prototyped at a Bay Area TechShop. Since its launch in 2008, the Embrace Warmer has helped hundreds of thousands of babies in 10 countries and has gotten financial backing from the likes of Beyoncé. "By talking to other members and learning about other polymers, the people behind the Embrace blanket greatly improved their product," says Newton.
TechShop Pittsburgh helped bring to life SolePower, an insole that doubles as a mobile, renewable power source, which aims to help alleviate energy poverty.
Removing the Risk Factor From Invention
By offering people with ideas and the inclination to work with their own two hands a space to create, TechShop is taking a huge risk factor out of invention. Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, told Techonomy that when he visited the makerspace facility, in less than an hour's time at least three people told him they had reduced their prototyping startup costs by 97 percent or more by doing it themselves.
"During the prototype phase, there are hundreds of times when you'll want to make little changes," says Newton. "If you send it out to someone, they don't care about those little adjustments. They're not passionate about it. There's a huge benefit in having the inventor drive the entire process."
With the maker movement on the rise— Maker Faire, a yearly expo and festival in the Bay Area has gone from about 20,000 attendees in 2006 to more 150,000 this year— TechShop is also growing. There are currently eight TechShops in the U.S. with two more, in St. Louis and Los Angeles, set to open soon. A TechShop in Paris, France, will open in October, followed by one in Abu Dhabi. Because of the demand, TechShop is able to operate on a model of only expanding to cities that reach out them and offer to fund a new makerspace.
In the future TechShop will continue to expand its locations and its services—perhaps even considering accelerator programs. "If you guard your ideas and don't share them, you're really doing a disadvantage to yourself," says Newton. "Being at TechShop is like being in the world's most amazing research and development environment."
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