WooVoice #4: Kevin Harrington, Co-Founder Technocopia

It’s a Thursday night, OpenHack night at Technocopia downtown at 44 Portland Street.  The space is alive with activity, laughter and conversations.  Before I interview Kevin, he stops to chat for five minutes with another member.  He asks the member’s advice for a student he met that day at the fab lab at Quinsigamond Community College.  The member offers to help the student who wants to make an exoskeleton for his hand that has no strength by printing and manufacturing his own upgrades.  So, this is what a makerspace is all about – to make things, to share tools and ideas and to create community together.  Technocopia is a big tool workshop that is a collectively shared resource. 

Most of the 40 members are hobbyists and folks who just want to try to make “cool stuff”.  Some of the members are using the collectively owned tools to launch their own light manufacturing for-profit businesses.  Kevin himself launched a robotics consulting firm providing such services as neurosurgery robots to perform brain surgery.  Another member is launching a business to build handcrafted tiny houses. 

An enterprise like Technocopia can play a key role in the revival of Worcester and downtown in several ways. 1) Worcester has deep roots as a manufacturing city.  Continuing to maintain and grow this strong manufacturing base can serve as an avenue for local economic development.  Technocopia is incubating viable and successful new light manufacturing businesses.  2) Light manufacturing was definitely part of the mix of uses when downtown was thriving before urban renewal.  We have now replaced most of that usage with office buildings and service industries. 3) The creation of these kinds of community spaces where residents can mix and mingle is crucial in building a city that has a good stock of “social capital”.  4) Technocopia is bringing people downtown during the days and more importantly, the evenings after office hours, providing the kind of foot traffic on the downtown sidewalks that makes our city streets feel safer and more alive.

Origin of hackerspaces

"Hackerspaces started in Germany in the mid-90s.  There, they were focused primarily on electronics because you needed all this test equipment to work on electronics.  It’s very expensive.  So, you needed to collaborate and have these tools.  You could spend $50,000 on one tool that you would use 2 or 3 hours a month.  Even in the best case scenario, you would never use it more than 5 hours a month. So, it only makes sense to own it as a group or eat the cost.  Most people who are hackers, getting started as hobby, will never have the money to do that.  Hackerspaces are there to get access to those tools.  The model is essentially the same idea as a public library.  You are sharing access to something that everyone will need at some point but no one needs all the time.  Sharing makes a lot of sense in that context."

"There’s 1500 (makerspaces) in the United States at the moment, well over 3000 globally, five in Boston that I know of, one in Framingham.  We’re the nearest one here in thirty minutes from any direction.  There was an opportunity."

 Makerspaces not just for sharing tools but creating community

"Yes, we have tools. Yes, we have space but more importantly, it’s the community of people sitting around and having conversations… that’s what a maker space really is.  It is the community, the community’s interaction, the way we look at and think about tools not necessarily how to use them. Everyone in this space has at least some set of tools here that they will never touch. Everyone has at least one tool here that they don’t own but use all the time.  That’s thinking broadly how we can share ownership and share the burden of capital ownership.  These are capital manufacturing tools with depreciation, maintenance and insurance costs for operation… very large overhead costs.  We at the maker space… maintain the tools as a collection.  When the members get together and say, “hey we want this tool,” that goes on the list of priorities."

Technocopia organizational structure

"Technocopia is an organization that organizes the common areas and the shop.  Technocopia has a shop manager for each of the shops – digital fab, the wood shop, education… We operate as a non-profit, 501C3. We have a board of directors and shop managers.  In year two, we will have elections for the board.  The plan is to make sure we are financially stable, meet the grant reporting requirements and fiduciary duties for the insurance.  That is the board’s responsibility and we are in constant communication with the members to make sure we are serving their needs.  It’s all about finding common ground -  being able to get things done while benefiting from the collaboration."

Thursdays are openhack nights

"OpenHack is narrow in time from 7:30 to 10 one night a week.  Think of it more like a show and tell night when the members come and show off cool stuff they have been working on.  The rest of prospective members can come and hang out, see what is going on." 

Technocopia as incubator for new manufacturing businesses

"There are businesses within it, many only able to operate with the overhead subsidized by the makerspace.  The makerspace deals with the bureaucratic shield and everything underneath that shield. The biggest conflict is “do you use the power tools in the common area?”  We want to lower the barrier of entry into manufacturing start-ups.  We would like to be in the same category as a software start-up.  All you need is an idea and a laptop and you can start a business.  If you have access to a makerspace, an idea and a laptop, then you can start a business but your business can actually be manufacturing something – You can laser cut a few prototypes, take pictures, put it up online, start taking orders at volume and you just run it through by hand and make to order, never hold on to stock, fully digital.   There are whole kinds of business models that can operate where manufacturing is to order and can be done by nearly anyone.  That idea set is where the new businesses are going to come from.  There is a big blue sky open now using direct digital manufacturing – laser cut, CNC, 3D printers as a basis for dynamic business models."

A full range of maker-projects

"One of our makers is using our CNC to make a tiny house.  Doesn’t know how but he can download files and put wood in a machine and hit “go”.  The results are pretty interesting.  Another guy is actually making hand crafted tiny houses using traditional tools like hand chisels and hammers.  He makes timber frame houses.  They’re right abutting each other.  That’s a good example of the breadth of skills here. Two people will end up with the essentially the same output from two totally different paths – one digital manufacturing and the other a full traditional craft.  It’s a really interesting combination that you can see in a place like this."

Our tools and machines

"All equipment has been donated.  We don’t buy equipment.  All the hand tools, the power tools, the CNC, the 3D printers have been donated by members.   My grandfather passed recently and his tools came here. Nick’s grandfather passed away a year later.  His tools came here. Ian brought most of a functioning wood shop he has been collecting for 10 years – a lot from the transition of Worcester Center for Crafts.  Ian bought them and now he is here with those old and fantastic tools.  Old wood shop tools mean good wood shop tools.  They survived this long.  They are fine.  Just maintain them and they will go for another fifty years. A lot of tools in Ian’s shop are industrial grade tools.  I love the sculpted, big knobs on things that have no purpose other than the aesthetics.  You don’t see that on manufacturing tools anymore.  I love the knobs. There’s a very satisfying feel to them."

How to share

"We have a bunch of supplies – screws, nuts and bolts and we don’t charge for them but we have a rule.  If you take a penny, leave a penny.  You know what you took and you know how useful it was to you.  Your obligation is to bring something back of equivalent usefulness. That is the rule.  When you say, dollar for dollar, it is an exchange and you are done.  No!  Now you have an abstract debt of usefulness.  Bring back a part that is useful because that is what you took.  From that perspective, it’s about that I’m going to take something but let me think about how that is going to affect the community and what my responsibilities are now.  Everything comes with that level of personal responsibility because we are having to share all of this.  That sharing is a part of the agreement and the interaction."

Business model for a makerspace that is successful

"You need common membership, one place to pay and you have access to everything, all the tools, plus the upsell to do longer term projects like the big house. Not- for- profit, not penny pinching your members, have abroad enough appeal so everyone feels there is something there for them.. all these are important concepts that allow us to be successful.  We thought, 'pretty sure this is a thing!' So,  here we are."

Why in Worcester?

"(The biggest draw is) the low cost of living, the fact that there has not been as big of a property bubble here as in other places… (Worcester) has the population density at the same time as the low cost of living. That’s very rare.  This could have worked anywhere.  As we were building up our business and the first customer was WPI, it was convenient to be here to begin with.  When we did the analysis, Worcester got high marks in a comparison chart.  Here, Cleveland, Detroit to a lesser degree only because there are so many maker spaces coming now online because people saw that opportunity a while ago and they are swooping in…. “hipster swarm” as it is not affectionately called. That idea is that a maker community can rally around a place that has population density and deep manufacturing roots.  Worcester has deep manufacturing roots.  Lots of our suppliers are here – printed circuit boards from a place down the road, the injection molder was downtown, the hydrocutter right here in the city.  This doesn’t really exist in non-manufacturing cities.  Technocopia can be a pipeline out once you are ready to go into full blown manufacturing.  It’s local, local, local."

"People don’t realize that Worcester is actually a port city.  We’re not on an ocean but we are on a port with the rail, the highway and air travel.  Why does Worcester have an airport?  No flights go out of there except all of the packages in the northeast from Fedex and UPS go through the WORCESTER hub, not the Boston hub!  The airport is used a lot just not for commercial aircraft.  The rail hub is why it is there because you can get from the airlines to the rail right away.  You can get from the airlines to the highway system very quickly.  Worcester has a good location from all those perspectives. "

"The intellectual capital, the feed stock coming in from the universities is important.  We have a deal with WPI where WPI students and their maker space club on campus pays us membership dues so that anyone from their club can come and use our facility.  We would be willing to make similar deals with other schools specifically to draw in that intellectual capital.  When you leave WPI, you are not out in the cold, you have THIS to move into.  It’s all about creating that pipeline and that story where you can imagine running a business out of a place you’ve spent so much time as an undergrad. "

The physical location and building

"During the day, when the light is streaming in all the windows, it is gorgeous.  It’s a fantastic location.  There is almost no obstruction with views of the city and the hills in every direction.  I can’t wait for spring because out there, that whole mountain is going to go green – lush landscape in every direction.  You don’t think of that when you think “high density city”.  A lot that would be contradicting requirements, Worcester actually happens to have a lot of contradicting requirements.  Unfortunately, the double edge sword of that is that as soon as we become popular enough that everyone is jumping on board, then the affordability will go away."

Kevin adjusting a 3D printer - photo by Andrew Harrington

Kevin adjusting a 3D printer - photo by Andrew Harrington

The next step dream for Technocopia

"The next play will be picking up one of the apartment buildings around here.  We would like to see if you want somewhere to live when you are starting your business, we have a subsidized rent building.  I’d love to pick up the Bancroft, or one of the towers around here… maybe within a five year timeline.  (This housing) would run as a non-profit and would specifically be anti-gentrification by driving down the price to cost.  It’s not just open housing but you have to be a member, active and a part of the community."

Landlords as incubator anti-gentrification partners

"The Wades who own the building are not landlords.  They are partners with us.  They are subsidizing the rent for us the way we want to subsidize living situations eventually.  The subsidy they gave to us is what we used as a dollar amount to leverage the grant from Mass Development.  The first conversation we had with them, they said, “We want the artists, the creatives but we are really conscious that that could drive up land prices and we don’t want to be the driving force of gentrification.”  Oh!  The landlord said WHAT!   Cool!  They get it!  And they get it for a good reason.  This building was founded as a cooperative in 1921, a cooperative of multiple printing press businesses that wanted to give the finger to the local landlord.  They got together, formed a cooperative, built the building from nothing. That cooperative still owns the building.  We write our checks to the “Printers Building Cooperative Trust”.  The owners have been very conscientious and see the big vision has nothing to do with money.  If you try to look at it from the lens of how do I make money, you’ve already failed.  The higher level of organization that keeps everything stable can’t extract money from the people around them."