NW Hackerspaces Double as Incubators for Entrepreneurship

Aug 1, 2013

“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. So, some market themselves under the more benign-sounding label of "maker space."

And these spaces are now drawing attention as private incubators for entrepreneurship.

First, let's straighten out this name business.

"Our original name had the word 'hack' in it. 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,” says Justin Burns, who 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. 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,” Burns said.

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 and 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 said. 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 entity. But close to one-third of the Northwest maker spaces we identified are incorporated as for-profits. 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. 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,” Westervelt said.

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 startup company is close to marketing a cheaper alternative to an IV infusion pump dubbed the Drip Clip.

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

Shift Labs 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 Gauguin's 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,” Coward said.

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 University of Washington business school professor Sonali Shah 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," said 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.