Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A very bright idea!

I was intrigued to read about Techshop, a facility in Menlo Park, California offering tools, equipment and expertise to would-be inventors and entrepeneurs. CNN reports:

Remember the stereotype of the lone inventor, toiling away in the solitude of a garage?

Now picture that garage on steroids: a 15,000-square-foot playground for nearly 700 tinkerers, with folks busily crafting all manner of prototypes, from faux leather iPad cases to server cooling systems.

That's TechShop. Opened in 2006 in Menlo Park, Calif., it's a D.I.Y. geek's paradise, a wonderland of lathes, drill presses, welders, sandblasters, industrial sewing machines, table saws, grinders and everything else you've ever dreamed of stuffing into your own garage. Members pay $125 per month (or $1,200 a year) for access to the shop's machine; day passes go for $25. Training in skills like soldering, sandblasting and chocolate molding are open to anyone for a per-course fee.

Some members use the tools to fix up their kids' tricycles, build custom furniture or print logos on T-shirts. But more than half of them are chasing projects that, with luck, will go beyond the personal realm. They're the entrepreneurs.

Take Patrick Buckley, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based DODOcase. The company sells iPad cases that resemble Moleskine notebooks with fake leather covers for $60 a pop. To create his prototype, Buckley needed access to a $25,000 machine called a ShopBot, a robotic tool that can carve images in wood, foam and other materials.

"TechShop was a perfect place to prototype," says Buckley, a former research scientist. "I was able to use hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment that I could have never afforded to buy myself."

Getting a company like DODOcase up and running used to require a lot more time and startup capital. But with cheap access to expensive machines, Buckley was able to create a DODOcase prototype for under $500. The 29-year-old entrepreneur says his company is about to hit $1 million in sales -- just five months after its launch.

That's exactly the kind of inexpensive innovation that Jim Newton, 47, the founder and managing director of TechShop, had in mind when he opened for business four years ago. A former robotics teacher and engineer, Newton started TechShop because he had more than 200 ideas for inventions -- from a smart sprinkler system for irregularly shaped lawns to a portable device that warns pilots of nearby aircraft -- but lacked the equipment to build them.

"I tried to think of a way to model the business so I could play with the machines and pay for them with a revenue source," Newton says. "One of the methods that occurred to me was the fitness club model."

TechShop CEO Mark Hatch says the company's Menlo Park location will bring in $1 million this year, up 50% from last year. The model is one Hatch would like to replicate. A planned partnership for an Oregon offshoot fizzled, but a North Carolina TechShop is thriving in Raleigh, and new branches are slated to open later this year in San Francisco, San Jose and Detroit (where Ford Motor Company is a collaborator).

Hatch would like to launch 100 more TechShops in the next five years.

There's more at the link. The Techshop Web site also provides more information.

In a faltering economy like ours, I can't think of a more useful innovation to help the tens of thousands thrown out of work, who must rely on what they can earn themselves, without the security of an employer. Those with bright ideas, who want to develop them into useful products, often can't afford the equipment they need to do so: but Techshop offers a much cheaper alternative, and a way to move ahead when other, more traditional avenues are blocked. When you consider that small businesses (the kind who'll use Techshop) create most of the jobs in this country, that's really important.

Kudos to Mr. Newton for thinking of it, and pushing ahead with his idea. I have a feeling that if he can open the 100 Techshop centers he wants to around the country, it could make a real and meaningful contribution to getting us out of our current economic woes.



raven said...

Great idea, wonder what he pays in liability insurance?

SiGraybeard said...

This is interesting. I have CNC lathe and mill, and a manual lathe, but they are all small work envelope. I've basically built them all from components so no "Turnkey systems" here.

There's a saying that the answer to the question, "how big a do I need?" is always "one inch larger than what you've got".

If there was one nearby I could build those one-time projects that require a really big machine that don't make sense to buy otherwise.

Billll said...

Club Workshop in Denver is basically the same thing. They also promote the makers of the Make magazine type.

Anonymous said...

This is something I like a lot. I get access to some spendy tools, owner gets his spendy tools paid for, everyone wins.