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Where do-it-yourself inventors do their R&D

TechShop offers tools to an innovative community

June 09, 2008|David Gelles | Special to The Times

MENLO PARK, CALIF. — He works in Silicon Valley, the land of start-ups founded in garages. But a garage wouldn't suffice for what Chris Tacklind wanted to invent.

He knew that crafting the inexpensive, compact laser pointer for quadriplegics he dreamed up would require some seriously high-tech tools that he didn't own.

So to make his brainchild, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. engineer turned to an unusual business: TechShop, a fully equipped community workshop that is changing the way inventors work.

There he shaped a plastic casing using a 3-D printer that costs tens of thousands of dollars and assembled the guts of his device using the shop's electronic equipment. Today, his laser pointer is making its way to market.

"If you wanted to build this yourself, it would be impossible," Tacklind said. "As an individual, you just can't assemble this kind of equipment."

By offering affordable access to otherwise out-of-reach tools, TechShop is lowering start-up costs and providing a commons for previously isolated minds. It's a place where "makers" -- as members of the do-it-yourself movement are known -- can make such products as water-cooled stacks of computer servers and remote-controlled robots that do videoconferencing.

It's doing for physical goods what Kinko's did for printed products, said David Pescovitz, a research director at the Institute for the Future, a forecasting group in Menlo Park.

"TechShop has the potential to be the service bureau to the maker culture," he said.

The atelier occupies a maze-like 15,000-square-foot warehouse near Stanford University. Twelve work tables fill the main space. Rooms are designated individually for activities such as painting, foam molding and neon production.

Since opening in October 2006, TechShop has attracted 300 members, each paying $100 a month for hands-on access to the sophisticated tools. The operation also sells supplies and charges for classes.

"It's like a health club," said TechShop founder Jim Newton, a former science advisor for the TV show "Myth Busters." "But instead of exercise equipment, we have welders and laser cutters and sheet-metal equipment."

Now TechShop is poised to expand. Newton, 45, plans to open 11 additional locations in the coming year. Soon, TechShops may appear in markets as diverse as Austin, Texas; Orlando, Fla.; and Los Angeles.

Newton expects the first Los Angeles location to open in early summer 2009. He said he was still looking for a partner in the area.

With franchises on the way, Newton hopes to emulate the bottom-up style of innovation employed by Kinko's. That company's early franchisees came up with such signature ideas as photo calendars, photo mugs and staying open 24 hours a day. "Each of the partners were very entrepreneurial," Newton said. "That's what we're trying to foster."

Newton even hired away a Kinko's executive to be his chief operating officer. Mark Hatch, now with TechShop, was the director of its $200-million computer services business. (The printing company's name is being phased out by parent FedEx Corp.)

It's not clear that TechShop will succeed outside Silicon Valley, which, after all, has a unique concentration of entrepreneurs and inventors.

Even veterans of the maker movement admit to skepticism. "I'm not predicting that every market could support a TechShop," said Dale Dougherty, editor of Make magazine. "These things are hard to pull off."

Still, Newton has ambitious plans to open 50 shops in the next five years.

TechShop's early success is a sign of the maker movement's recent renaissance. Magazines such as Make and ReadyMade promote the DIY ethos. The Maker Faire, a celebration of invention and crafts, drew 65,000 people to the San Mateo Fairgrounds last month.

Aside from TechShop's tools, its major asset is the opportunity it gives inventors to mingle. "We're about selling access to an incredible community of really smart, like-minded people," Newton said.

When Carson Hoyt, a design student at San Francisco State University, needed help laminating aluminum strips onto the body of a robotic guitar, a fellow TechShop member showed him how. "There's a lot of expertise here," Hoyt said.

Newton got the idea for TechShop after teaching a class on robot building at a local college. His students kept coming back -- not to learn more from Newton, but to use the machine shop.

To gauge interest for his endeavor in April 2006, Newton went to the first Maker Faire, where he set up a card table and a paper sign describing his idea for TechShop.

"We walked away with 250 people on our mailing list, just going nuts over the idea," Newton said. By the fall, he had raised $350,000 from so-called angel investors, all contacts from the list he compiled at the Maker Faire.

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