Tinker, Invent, Innovate - TechShop Comes To Metro Detroit
As far as Cinderella stories go, it doesn't get much better than Patrick Buckley's DODOcase
. The chic, bamboo iPad covers went from an idea ignited by the announcement of the first iPad in 2010 to sitting on President Obama's desk in a Huffington Post photo
near the end of 2011. Today, you can not only purchase a DODOcase iPad cover on the company website, but also at J. Crew. In this entrepreneurial fairytale, a new kind of workshop incubator called TechShop played the role of the Fairy Godmother.
"He worked at the TechShop
in Menlo Park [in California] says TechShop Chief Marketing Officer Dan Gonzalez of Buckley. "One guy came in with a dream, and for a membership that costs about the same as everybody's Starbucks addiction, built a hugely successful business."
How many entrepreneurial Cinderellas in waiting do you suppose there are in metro Detroit?
The world is about to find out. TechShop, which began in 2006, has now added us to its collection of locations in California, North Carolina and, soon, Brooklyn, New York.
"Word of mouth is one of the biggest drivers for people to hear about TechShop," Gonzalez says of the rapidly growing company. "Everybody knows at least five people who really wish they had a mill or welding equipment."
Gonzalez describes TechShop as a business on parallel to a typical workout facility: members pay a monthly fee to utilize equipment, can take advantage of one-on-one training and classes, and staff is on hand for on-the-spot questions and advice. The major difference, of course, is instead of treadmills and bench presses, TechShop features various CNC machines, industrial sewing machines, laser cutters, silk screen stations and more.
The unique concept is the brainchild of Jim Newton, whose background includes such high-profile titles as BattleBots competitor and science advisor on MythBusters.
"He is the consummate maker," says Gonzalez. "When he was doing those things he had access to tools and equipment that most people in the US can't afford. But any time he would finish a stint with "Mythbusters" or at a college, he couldn't get those tools anymore."
Like the true maker he's purported to be, Newton sold that problem by building a new way to make things. Using a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding method (Kickstarter wasn't around yet), Newton raised the money to begin the first TechShop, with investments from the people who would ultimately utilize the future facility.
Fast forward half a decade and four new TechShop locations, and Newton's venture caught the eye of godfather of US innovation, Ford.
"Ford actually brought us to Detroit as a part of a collaboration to help spur innovation in the industry," Gonzalez says.
The result was Techshop Detroit, a collaboration between TechShop, Ford Global Technologies [http://www.ford.com/] and Ford Land
. The facility is actually located in a 30,000-square foot Ford Land facility in Allen Park.
"We get a lot of inquiries from a lot of organizations," says Gonzalez, "but our CEO is keen on knowing where this idea fits. We are trying to foster open innovation in the right places."
Actually, they already are. Though TechShop Detroit just celebrated their grand opening in May, they opened quietly in December to allow some early members to get a jump on their projects, and to allow themselves time to custom fit the shop to the needs of the local community. The maker community was ready for it, soft opening or otherwise. Gonzalez reports that membership was in the hundreds before opening day.
One of those early starters was Luciano Golia. While most people might expect TechShop Detroit to be full of automotive industry off-shoots and industrious techies with an eye on being the next DODOcase story - and it certainly is - Golia, a recent Italian immigrant utilizing TechShop to make artisanal cellos, demonstrates the ready and waiting talent in metro Detroit is as diverse as it is deep.
"I was looking for a place to start my work here after 24 years of business in Italy," Golia says. "When you move from a different country, to find a place like the Techshop means a lot. [It gives] you the chance to do your work in a very nice environment and with nice and helpful people around."
In fact, without the TechShop, Golia would have simply been out of business. He moved to Allen Park with his new wife, and regardless of outstanding instrument orders from around the world, he had no way to start building them. He was still buried beneath his immigration paperwork when his wife heard about TechShop and suggested he give it a try.
"To open a workshop immediately was not in the plans and I loved the idea of a place were you can [just get to work]," he says.
Golia and his fellow TechShop Detroit members aren't the only ones excited about the potential of the new business to impact innovation in metro Detroit. Before its opening day, TechShop was awarded the 2012 Innovator of the Year award at the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce's
annual Business Recognition Awards Ceremony & Expo.
"We were really thrilled to receive this award," says Gonzalez. "That's exactly what we're trying to do, to allow people to live their dream."
That's a goal for which Golia is particularly thankful.
"The story of my life is about passion and art, I love what I do and I traveled and worked for the best musicians in the world in my career," says Golia. "The skills required for work like mine are very complicated to achieve, you must be a carver, a musician, a designer, a woodworker, [mathematician]…there are a lot of things involved in the perfection of a musical instrument."
Though new to Michigan, his story is one of many around metro Detroit. Golia had all the skills, ideas and innovation inside of him, and needed only the chance to get his hands on the right equipment to pick right up where he left off. For a metro area full of bright, skilled and ready-to-work machinists and innovators, TechShop Detroit is like a dream come true.
"I [am a] happy person who had the chance to live with what he is and he want to be," Golia says. "The TechShop is a tool for your creativity, [and] should be a great help for artists because the many different kind of experiences those people have there."
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
Photos By David Lewinski Photography