A Space For DIY People To Do Their Business

DIY hacker spaces have been called "gyms for innovators." The facilities, which allow DIYers the space and tools to create and invent, have become incubators for small businesses.

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Last week, we broadcast a story on DIY hackerspaces. Now, those are real, not virtual spaces. They're sort of communal work rooms where do-it-yourselfers can find the tools and expertise to repurpose everyday items.

This week, Jon Kalish reports on how these facilities serve as incubators for small businesses.

JON KALISH: You can join a hackerspace if you want to do crafts and put together electronic kits. But most are much more than that. They offer state-of-the art machinery, and like-minded people who can inspire your own creativity. Hackerspaces are an ecosystem for invention and innovation.

(Soundbite of printer)

KALISH: The Makerbot is a desktop 3D printer found in virtually every hackerspace on the planet. It takes a computer file for a three-dimensional object and renders it in plastic.

(Soundbite of conversation)

KALISH: The Makerbot was created by three members of the Brooklyn Hackerspace NYC Resistor.

Mr. BRE PETTIS (Co-founder, Makerbot): Being at a hackerspace is what led us to start Makerbot.

KALISH: Hacker Bre Pettis is co-founder of Makerbot.

Mr. PETTIS: We had tools there. We had friends there that were - all the time, who were resources and helpful. And we just had a space that we could go to that wasn't our living room, that wasn't our kitchen, it wasn't our closet, that was shared, that we could go and be creative at. And I just think it's so important if you're going to push the boundaries, to have a place where you can do it and have support.

KALISH: Pettis and his fellow hackers initially put together Makerbot kits at NYC Resistor, making parts with the hackerspace's laser cutter. But demand was so high, they had to rent a manufacturing space of their own, which is known as the Bot Cave. Makerbot now has 15 employees.

Mr. PETTIS: We're a real force of nature now.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KALISH: At the Philadelphia hackerspace Hive 76, member Chris Thompson started a business called Meat Cards. Two colleagues at his day job helped him find a new use for a laser cutter.

Mr. CHRIS THOMPSON: They were saying, oh, wouldn't it be cool to have edible business cards made of beef jerky? Chris has a laser; let's do this. And so the next day, I bought some beef jerky at 7-11, and I threw it in the laser, and it worked. Started making samples, got a lot of Twitter followers and buzz. Sold a bunch for Christmas.

KALISH: Thompson is not the only one here at Hive 76 to do small- batch manufacturing on the premises. Jack Zylkin turns old, manual typewriters into computer keyboards.

(Soundbite of typewriter)

KALISH: It took Zylkin six months to wire up his first typewriter, which he promptly displayed on Etsy, a website devoted to handmade goods.

Mr. JACK ZYLKIN: I basically made one prototype and then on a lark, I put it up on Etsy. I was hoping that people would like, comment on it, on Etsy, or say like, oh, that's a cool item. But it turns out that I posted it on Etsy at like, maybe 1 o'clock in the morning and then, by the time I had woken up, someone bought it. So I was like, whoa.

KALISH: Zylkin can barely keep up with demand for his typewriter keyboards, which sell for as much as $700. He markets them with a photograph of an iPad sitting in a typewriter's paper tray - an idea he got from a fellow hacker. The popularity of the iPad has helped to launch another hackerspace business.

Thirty-year-old Patrick Buckley is a San Francisco entrepreneur who joined a for-profit hackerspace in Menlo Park, California, called TechShop.

(Soundbite of hammering)

KALISH: It was at this sprawling, high-end hackerspace that he perfected a prototype for the DODO case, a book-like cover for iPads.

Mr. PATRICK BUCKLEY: Speed up the spindle a little bit.

KALISH: Buckley used a computer-controlled milling machine, known as a shopbot, to make precise cuts in a piece of bamboo plywood, but he didn't get the results he wanted. Thankfully, another TechShop member showed him how to get the software to do the job.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Without TechShop, we never would have been able to do proof of concept with DODO case. That first step is hugely important in any business. You need to take it from idea stage to something that you can communicate to people. Put it in their hand and have them say, oh yeah, wow, I really get that, you know?

KALISH: The cooperative atmosphere of hackerspaces is enabling tinkerers and entrepreneurs to let their imaginations run wild, and sometimes even develop commercially viable products. Dozens of for-profit and non-profit hackerspaces are currently being planned around the country.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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