How Makerspaces Are Inspiring Innovation At Startups

What does the future hold for American innovation? Ask someone who’s spent a little time in a makerspace, and you’re liable to get a very optimistic answer. Every day, new ideas are coming to fruition in these community workshops, where thinkers and tinkerers can go to create things that might otherwise never see the light of day, thanks to the shared resources offered there.

Need a 3D printer to build a prototype? You’re likely to find one at a local makerspace. Looking for an engineer to draw up plans for your new idea? There’s probably one right down the hall from you there. Just want to collaborate with others who are eager to get together and make something? Look for your people in a makerspace.

Basically, if you want to create something, but you don’t have what you need to do it all on your own — whether it’s expensive equipment or people power — chances are you can do it in a makerspace. This week, I want to look at how this phenomenon is changing the game for everyone from entrepreneurs who aspire to start new companies to innovators who want to work for those companies.

A great place for startups to start.

Startup mentor Martin Zwilling once said that “the Maker Movement and startups were made for each other.” I’d say it’s hard to argue with that. When you think about the time and cost a startup can save using a community-shared equipment infrastructure instead of investing hard-to-get funding to buy its own resources, it just makes sense.

And while makerspaces may be great first homes for startups, the converse is true, too: Startups can also be great homes for makerspaces. For example, Umbel, the company I run, regularly hosts “Build Nights,” during which employees and their friends and families  take over the Umbel Labs facility to work on maker projects.

“Given that the average tenure at a startup is around 10.8 months, and how competitive it is to recruit new employees, outfitting your start up with a makerspace can have a measurable effect on retention and recruitment, especially when it comes to engineers,” stated Troy Lanier, Umbel’s VP of Innovation.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that if you head a startup, makerspaces have the potential to change the future of your company. A makerspace can give you access to the technology you need to get your idea off the ground. It can connect you with collaborators. And with entities like corporations and government getting in on the excitement, a makerspace can help you find funding for your ideas. Once your startup is off the ground, a makerspace inside it can help you recruit talented employees who are attracted to the idea of being able to spend time in a makerspace working on cool new ideas.

What makes a space a makerspace?

If a makerspace sounds to you like a co-working space or a tech incubator, they’re similar, but not quite the same. A makerspace is about more than just being in the same space with other creators. It’s about having access to the specialized tools and talent required to build the thing you want to create — and then taking advantage of those tools and talent to actually do it.

Typically, when people refer to makerspaces, they’re talking about places that have technology resources available. The technology website MakeUseOf, for example, includes 3D printers, laser cutters and vacuum formers on its shopping list of makerspace must-haves, along with a soldering iron and other basic electronics equipment.

The other essential ingredient is people. They’re what make a makerspace a community and not just a place that has production or manufacturing technology in place for shared use. NPR ran an “All Tech Considered” story not long ago that cited innovators working together in “synergy” as one of the big benefits of makerspaces.

Found just where you might expect (and also where you might not).

You’ll find lots of makerspaces in Austin, Texas, where I work running a big data startup. That shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the strong tech industry presence in the area. But you’ll also find makerspaces thriving in cities associated with more-traditional manufacturing, like Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — as The Atlantic discovered in an in-depth series on the impact of makerspaces.

You’ll find makerspaces in dedicated, purpose-built environments like TechShops and FabLabs — both of which are franchised makerspaces – as well as in less expected places like libraries and schools. And why not? Libraries and schools are both first and foremost about learning, and makerspaces are places where people get the resources they need to learn how to turn their dreams into realities.

You get the idea. And when you do, you can count on a makerspace to help make it a reality.

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