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Community-based Innovation Thrives in Hackerspaces

Michael Rohde demonstrates a pendulum-powered light that he's perfecting at OlyMEGA, the Olympia, Washington maker space. (Tom Banse for VOA)
Community workshops dubbed "hackerspaces" originated in Germany more than a decade ago. After a slow start, they're now appearing in cities around the world, including United States.

In North America, the word "hacker" most commonly refers to someone who illegally breaks into computer networks. But hackerspaces are social clubs for activities that include tinkering, machine tooling, and 3-D printing.

Some hackerspaces market themselves under the more benign-sounding label of "maker space," which are now drawing attention as private incubators for entrepreneurship.

"Our original name had the word 'hack' in it," said Justin Burns, who co-founded a hackerspace now called OlyMEGA, short for Olympia Makers, Engineers, Geeks and Artists. "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."

Do-it-yourself together

OlyMEGA is in Olympia, the capital of the state of Washington.

"We started out and have generally been focused just on being a resource for people," Burns said. "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."

On a recent balmy weeknight, about 25 people gather around various work benches and share tools in the back of a converted warehouse.Colorful paper-mâché animals from a neighboring art studio hang from the rafters. The tinkerers happily chat over half-assembled projects. A freelance computer programmer/musician demonstrates a pedal steel guitar he rebuilt.

These dues paying members have discovered that "do-it-yourself" is more fun when you 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 off 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."

Etsy is an online marketplace for crafts.

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

Profitable space

The OlyMEGA maker space is organized as a non-profit. But close to a third of the maker spaces in the northwestern United States are incorporated as profit-making commercial ventures. A good example of one of these is Metrix Create:Space in Seattle.

Owner Matt Westervelt oversees a basement crowded with 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 that's what it has become.

"Every single day I come in here I am surprised at what is going on," Westervelt said. "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."

A medical device company in Seattle, called Shift Labs, can trace its roots to a serendipitous meeting in a place called Hackerbot Labs and its discarded parts bin. Three years later, the start-up company is close to marketing a cheaper alternative to an IV infusion pump that has been dubbed the Drip Clip.

"The very first one was literally thrown together in an evening," said 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," he said. "That's largely a myth. What the research says is that most good ideas, creativity and invention come out of the collision of ideas when people are able to interact - mostly in physical environments."

Coward foresees maker spaces growing 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 better understand what she calls "community-based innovation."