MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: Today, how one group of self-described geeks is hoping to transform Michigan's sputtering economy. They call themselves the Geek Group. They're based in Kalamazoo, and they have set up what is essentially a nonprofit sandbox there for high-tech experimentation. Dustin Dwyer, of Michigan Radio met up with the group's founder, and he got a tour.
DUSTIN DWYER: Chris Boden likes to say that he hacked college. He went to classes, he lived on campus.
Mr. CHRIS BODEN: But I never enrolled, I couldn't afford to, but I wanted to learn. And I found very quickly that if you actually have a sincere, passionate desire to learn and you don't care about the degree, that the whole world is a school.
DWYER: Boden never got a degree but he kept the passion, which led to creating the Geek Group. It has members all over the world, but the headquarters is here, in an old machine shop just north of Kalamazoo. Boden says anyone can come here and just play.
Mr. BODEN: It's like if you could go to "Mythbusters" and hang out. It's a real place.
DWYER: It almost even looks like the set of "Mythbusters," with crazy experiments all over the place - like a nuclear fusion reaction inside a small, glass container.
Mr. BODEN: That's a star in a jar.
DWYER: Next to that, there's a magnetics demonstration that shoots an aluminum disc straight up to the ceiling.
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DWYER: There also is a high-voltage lab, where Boden demonstrates the Thumper.
Mr. BODEN: It's like the finger of God.
DWYER: He sets a Mountain Dew can on a piece of metal attached to an obscene amount of electrical power.
Mr. BODEN: All right, you ready?
DWYER: We stand back 30 feet, and Boden tells me to mash a big, red button.
Mr. BODEN: I promise this won't hurt. I promise not to kill you.
DWYER: All right.
Mr. BODEN: OK.
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DWYER: The can is vaporized, and I can still feel the thump in my chest.
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DWYER: This place is a geek's dream house. Lis Bokt first heard about the Geek Group while surfing the Internet six years ago. She was living in Toronto at the time.
Ms. LIS BOKT (Executive Director, The Geek Group): I came here, and I saw all of the really awesome machines and toys that I knew that I had wanted to use for something, but there was no way I would ever be able to get one for myself.
DWYER: After one visit, Bokt decided to move to Kalamazoo. And she's now executive director of the Geek Group, which is a nonprofit, staying afloat largely through donations and grants. But it also serves as a kind of R&D facility for small companies that can't afford their own lab. And this is what gets Chris Boden really excited. He takes me into a room with a computer numerically controlled milling machine that anyone can use to develop prototypes.
Mr. BODEN: This machine creates jobs. It doesn't just make parts. It doesn't just make metal shavings and plastic shavings. This makes jobs.
DWYER: That's what brought in Pat Hanna, who runs a company called One2Products. His eyes light up at all the science experiments. But he came here for a much more practical reason.
Mr. PAT HANNA (Owner, One2Products): Well, we had developed our product that we're hoping these guys can help us with, and we were looking for somebody to do some simple machining - and also to keep it quiet for a little while.
DWYER: The Geek Group charges for some of this work. It's one of the many ways to keep the lights on - and they do use a lot of electricity here. The insurance bills are also through the roof. But Boden has a vision to expand the Geek Group: Build a 40-acre campus but without degrees or tuition, a place where people could do what he calls open-source research and development.
Mr. BODEN: But I can't get economic development to care because we're the weird guys. We're the guys out on the edge of town that blow stuff up.
DWYER: Boden believes the Geek Group would get more attention if it were in Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley doesn't have the kind of unemployment that's ravaged Michigan, or the manufacturing heritage and making things with your bare hands. He believes that this is a place that could use some weird people on the edge of town. This is a place that could use some real geeks.
For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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