Hackerspaces: Bringing Your Ideas to (Money-Making) Life

How do you invent the next “big thing” without going broke in the process? Invention ideas are great, but they also cost a lot of money to develop; by the time you’ve bought the equipment and hired the skilled labor to generate your prototype, filed a provisional patent, and maybe even found a few interested partners, you could be several thousand dollars in the hole.

However, what if you could realize your invention idea by learning all the necessary skills yourself and paying a small fee to rent the equipment? By doing this extra legwork, your invention idea could cost you as little as a hundred bucks to develop. You could do this by working with a hackerspace, also often called a makerspace, to bring your invention idea to life.

What is a hackerspace?

To answer this question, I talked with Chris Meyer, the owner of Sector67, a hackerspace in Madison, Wisconsin. Chris has been running Sector67 for a few years now and was even involved in helping Alisa Toninato of the now FeLion Studios design cast-iron skillets of U.S. states like Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Toninato’s business was later featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine.

“What does a hackerspace mean? Who knows,” says Chris. “What a hackerspace does mean is that you’re likely to find a set of people who have a similar mindset about creativity and collaboration and getting together and doing cool stuff.”

Sounds like a good start.

A hackerspace is typically defined as a community organized and operated space where members can congregate, collaborate and work on individual or group projects. The projects themselves are member-defined; however, they often involve computers, electronics and scientific and manufacturing equipment. The nature of each hackerspace is determined by member interests; one hackerspace may be primarily biology-oriented, with members engaged in cell culture and cloning, while another hackerspace may be composed of members designing iPhone apps or Facebook games.

How does a hackerspace function?

Many hackerspaces are organized as non-profit businesses. Other hackerspaces are created when interested individuals come together and pool their assets into the venture. Those individuals become the founding members of the hackerspace. However, the hackerspace need not be a closed entity; in the case of Sector67, individual and business memberships are sold at the rate of $100 or $200 per month, respectively. These priced memberships help support the hackerspace in terms of expenses like its rent, utilities, new equipment purchases, etc. New members also help expand and shape the scope of the hackerspace.

Instructional classes may be another aspect of the hackerspace. Sector67 offers one-one-one classes for $50; one-on-many classes may run $10 0r $20. These aren’t snooze classes either; on the day I arrived at Sector67, there was a billboard advertising a cool-sounding “Lockpicking 101” class. Other classes include “Make Your Own Solar Cooker,” “WordPress 101,” and “Writing a Business Plan.”

Hackerspaces are often associated with a lot of cool-looking gadgets, toys and other equipment. At Sector67 alone, there is a massive 3D printer located in one corner of the facility. There are also many types of computer numeric control (CNC) machines including routers, mills, lathes, laser cutters, welders, saws, and injection molders. Sector67 also contains oscilloscopes, electronics testing equipment and a computer lab.

“The rest of it’s all boring,” says Chris.

For roughly 20 years now, hackerspaces have existed, albeit quietly and mostly at universities where members had to be affiliated with the school. Around 2006, hackerspaces really started taking off, worldwide and in the U.S. Currently, states like California and New York have many hackerspaces available. Even unexpected spots like Casper, Wyoming have a hackerspace (Firefly).

According to the HackerspaceWiki list, there are an estimated 176 hackerspaces in the U.S. More hackerspaces are in the works; for example, on the HackerspaceWiki list, the state of Wisconsin shows only two hackerspaces; however, Madison’s Sector67 and a newly formed makerspace in Whitewater are missing.

What makes a makerspace?

Many people instantly associate a hackerspace with cool equipment like 3D printers, CNC equipment, injection molders and welders. However, “it’s really not about the equipment,” according to Chris. “I never set out in my business plan to say, ‘I need a laser cutter or I need this thing or that thing.’  We’re not a soldering club or a knitting club or a CNC equipment club or a laser cutter club.”

“The principle here is to provide basic services that bring people in and get them excited about new things and meeting new people. That’s the important part. It’s not to re-create the tool set, and it’s not to re-create the facilities, but it’s to re-create the people. You have to find the right people.”

Chris talks about how hackerspace members generate a sort of “critical mind mass” by the simple fact that they gather in one space, collaborate, and bring about new ideas. If one member can have a great idea about building the next “big thing,” fellow members can figure out a way to materialize the equipment needed to bring the idea to fruition. That equipment may end up being purchased, rented or even built from scratch.

“The equipment is not important,” Chris says. “The equipment doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a CNC mill, you will figure out some other way of making it. You’ll have enough smart people around who will come up with some creative application that will do the same job. Or they’ll come up with a different design. Or, more importantly, maybe they’ll give somebody a call in the community and say ‘Hey, I know you’ve got a business doing this, would you be willing to help us out for an hour?'”

The bottom line here is that a critical mind mass of smart people will find a way.

How can you get involved in a hackerspace?

Hopefully, there is a hackerspace near you that you can join and take advantage of. Most hackerspaces are rather informal and simply seek out inquisitive, vibrant minds. Even if you don’t currently have an invention idea, you might soon find yourself with one after touring a hackerspace and speaking with some of its members.