How Maker Spaces Can Offer a Win-Win for Business Incubators
By now, you have surely heard of the “maker movement” – an international community of innovators, builders, engineers, entrepreneurs and others utilizing the latest in manufacturing technologies and techniques to create things. In addition, the advent of maker spaces equipped with the right tools has made the creation of products more affordable and easier than ever.
“All my life I have made things, created things, built things,” said Josh Parry, a member of HeatSync Labs in Mesa, Arizona. “These places have given me an outlet for all the things I wanted to make – whether it is 3D printing, laser cutting, and all the power tools in the world.”
As a result of this explosion of makers and spaces, a new portrait of entrepreneurship is emerging – one with a lower cost of entry and more widespread creation of sustainable businesses and startups. Business incubators need to seize this opportunity. Through the expertise of their network of mentors, counselors, and entrepreneurs-in-residence, they can provide the commercialization assistance to take maker products from garage to global.
How can an incubator capitalize on the maker movement? Here are a few options:
1) Build a Manufacturing Space Onsite and Provide In-House Manufacturing and Business Development Expertise
This does not mean buying a MakerBot and calling it good. This will take some significant overhead expenses up front, but it will be worth it in the end. Seek out grant funding opportunities from your local municipality and/or the Federal Government (the Economic Development Administration has numerous opportunities if you can link the project to job creation).
The Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation (CEI) in Phoenix, Arizona has built it the right way. In addition to purchasing eleven 3D printers and SolidWorks design software, the business incubator brought in the experts as a differentiator. CEI partnered with Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies (PADT) to launch PADT “Startup Labs” at CEI. This small-scale 3D printing and design lab services CEI ventures as well as local entrepreneurs by providing affordable prototyping services, with a particular focus on medical devices, and subsequently offering the business resources to supplement the product development. For instance, the incubator has mentors that will offer assistance as entrepreneurs take their medical devices through the FDA approval and commercialization processes.
2) Partner with an Existing Space to Provide Extended Access to Incubation and Maker Resources
If establishing your own space is too capital intensive, chances are there is an organization in your community with whom you can partner. By collaborating with an existing maker space, you can provide benefits to your entrepreneurs as well as members of the maker space.
For example, Arizona State University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation department partnered with TechShop in Chandler, Arizona to provide free access to eligible full-time ASU students. The TechShop facility also houses the ASU Chandler Innovation Center, which provides engineering, computing, entrepreneurship, and product development programs and courses to ASU students.
3) Host, Exhibit, and Promote Maker and STEM-related Events
The White House has challenged local municipalities to advance the maker movement in their respective communities by hosting “maker faires” and injecting more STEM curriculum inside and outside the classroom for young students. As a business incubator, you can support, host and/or showcase your program during these events; this can help bridge the gap between the simple creation of a product on a machine to the development of a viable business in the marketplace. If you have a portable 3D printer, take it to a local high school shop class; host a workshop on three-dimensional design software; promote local spaces and their events via social media. These can be simple but powerful tactics.
Take for instance SEEDS for Autism; although not classified as a maker space, SEEDS functions as a job and life skills development organization for autistic individuals. It teaches social and development skills, but also provides practical training in: Metals/Welding; Jewelry; Sewing/Weaving; Ceramics; and Woodworking. Every Spring they host their “Art Jam Social,” giving community members the opportunity to network with SEEDS students, purchase products they have made, and enjoy hands-on demonstrations on the equipment. Tweeting about these and other events not only gives your organization a little goodwill but it further links the mission of a business incubator with the value of a maker space.