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'Hackerspaces' Double As Private Incubators For Entrepreneurship

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

"Hackerspaces" are popping up all over the Northwest. But these aren't dens of computer infiltrators.

What we're talking about are community workshops for tinkering, machine tooling, 3-D printing and any other hands-on creativity you can think of. Some market themselves under the more benign-sounding label of "maker space." These workshops are now drawing attention as private incubators for entrepreneurship.

But let's straighten out this name business.

"Our original name had the word 'hack' in it," says Justin Burns. "Those of us in the know knew what it meant, felt like it was a positive term, but it was not perceived that way on the outside."

Burns co-founded a hackerspace now called OlyMEGA, short for Olympia Makers, Engineers, Geeks and Artists. A steadily growing list of similar community workshops are sprouting in other Northwest cities. The roughly 20 we found sport names like FabLab, Maker Mill or Makerhaus.

"We started out and have generally been focused just on being a resource for people," Burns explains. "Being a space where quirky individuals, people who are creative, can come together and make stuff, make stuff they couldn't make on their own."

Social DIYers

On a recent balmy weeknight, about 25 people gather around various work benches and shared tools in the back of a converted warehouse. Colorful papier-mâché animals from a neighboring art studio hang from the rafters. The tinkerers happily chat over half-assembled projects. Freelance computer programmer/musician Kelly Ray Smith provides an impromptu soundtrack demonstrating a pedal steel guitar he rebuilt.

These dues-paying members have discovered Do-it-yourself is more fun when you can do-it-with-others. What started as a social gathering place has also become a home for people developing prototypes for commercial ventures.

Mechanical engineering graduate Nicholas Stanislowski shows a miniature toy catapult kit he designed and plans to sell.

"I'm probably going to see how Etsy works and getting them on there," he says.

Etsy is an online marketplace for crafts.

"I've been working on seeing how far I can go with this."

The OlyMEGA maker space is organized as a nonprofit. But close to a third of the Northwest maker spaces we identified are incorporated as for-profits.

Starting up the start-ups

A good example of one of these is Metrix Create:Space in Seattle. Owner Matt Westervelt oversees a basement warren of tool stations. He charges by the minute or the hour to use devices such as a laser cutter, soldering room or knitting machine.

He says he didn't specifically set out to create a hotbed for new business ventures, but it has served that purpose in spades. "Every single day I come in here I am surprised at what is going on," Westervelt says. "I like to make introductions when possible, but it's not from an 'incubator' sort of sense. We're not taking a slice out of any new company that starts up here, other than what we charge for the services."

Here's an example of what can sprout: A medical device company in Seattle called Shift Labs can trace its roots to a serendipitous meeting in a place called Hackerbot Labs and the discarded parts bin there. Three years later, the start-up company is close to marketing a cheaper alternative to an IV infusion pump, they've dubbed the Drip Clip.

"The very first one was literally thrown together in an evening," says Shift Labs co-founder Phil Rutschman.

Marketing director Chris Coward adds the hackerspace was crucial to the company's genesis. "There is this thing I would call the 'lone thinker myth,' that people have these 'Eureka' moments on their own, kind of like the Rodin statue. That's largely a myth. What the research says is that most good ideas, creativity and invention comes out of the collision of ideas when people are able to interact - mostly in physical environments."

Rise of the freelancer

Coward foresees maker spaces rising in importance "as the workforce becomes more freelancer, free agent" oriented. In fact, the Olympia maker space recently reached out to its county economic development council to discuss potential collaborations.

And business school Professor Sonali Shah at the University of Washington is in the midst of a national study to get a handle on what she calls "community based innovation."

"The maker revolution is truly a revolution," observes Shah. Her study with a co-investigator from UC-Berkeley aims to better understand who the patrons of maker spaces are and how much entrepreneurial activity that arena is producing.

"We were surprised how much variety there is," says Shah. "It's all over the map." The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is sponsoring the research, which Shah expects to present and publish around the end of this year.

On the Web:

OlyMEGA - Olympia Makers, Engineers, Geeks and Artists 
Metrix Create:Space
Shift Labs

Map: Northwest "Hackerspaces"

View Hackerspaces in a larger map

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.