San Francisco inventors usher in new era of innovation

May 13, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
He's not Mario or Luigi. But as Adam Ellsworth walks across the floor, he reaches above his head and punches a row of glowing orange blocks labeled with question marks. The vintage 1980s sound effects tell him he's just earned an extra life. He looks up and smiles at the hanging lamps that have made him an overnight entrepreneurial success.

"They are a bit of video game nostalgia," he explains. "They're inspired by Super Mario Brothers."

Ellsworth has already sold a thousand of the lamps, under the brand name "8 Bit Lit." He says he's raked in enough cash to begin work on his second product, an energy-saving alternative to neon signs. But it wasn't long ago that Ellsworth had never made anything at all. He's part of what's become known as the "maker movement."

You may have heard of Maker Faire, the annual carnival of inventions and do-it-yourself projects that's expected to draw thousands to the San Mateo Events Center this Saturday and Sunday. But you may not have heard about TechShop -- the playground of powerful tools and ideas where the "makers" hang out the other 363 days of the year.

"I love being here in San Francisco on a Friday or Saturday night, because this is literally the most creative place in the city on those evenings," said TechShop CEO Mark Hatch, as he looked around at the bustling second floor workspace in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. TechShop also has locations in Menlo Park and San Jose.

Since it started a few years ago, TechShop has amassed some 4,000 members, who pay a monthly fee of around $125 for access to 3D design tools, laser cutters, metal and woodworking machinery, and classes to learn how it all works.

"The tools of the Industrial Revolution are now cheaper than they've ever been in all of human history," Hatch said.

But there's one critical tool that wasn't around during the Industrial Revolution: 3D printers.

"This thing's basically a hot glue gun on steroids," explained Jesse Harrington Au, watching as the machine finished squirting out molten plastic into the shape of an iPhone case. 3D printers have become such an important part of the design process that one TechShop member, yearning for a bigger one, designed and built his own.

"There's an awful lot of things you can make if you can build them this big," said Type A Machines founder Andrew Rutter, pointing to a giant gold hat on his head shaped like a gemstone. Behind him, a 3D printer the size of a small refrigerator was already starting work on another one.

The printers are driven by 3D design software from companies like San Rafael-based Autodesk. Harrington Au works for Autodesk as a "maker advocate," stationed at TechShop to teach the company's beginner-friendly software to interested members. "Everything before was 15 weeks of school to learn a design program," he said. "We teach it here in three hours."

For many of the people sitting at TechShop's wide work tables and standing in front of its impressive power tools, making things starts as a hobby. But quite by accident, it often turns into a business. That's when they wind up at the San Francisco Hardware Meetup -- a gathering where members take the stage and demonstrate their inventions for an audience of fellow makers.

Nick Pinkston, who hosts the meetup, says he held the first one at TechShop two years ago, hoping to get 10 people. Now, more than 200 people pack the small auditorium at Autodesk's San Francisco offices, quietly chewing on pizza while inventors of products like the Ninja Standing Desk and Flip Slip foldable shoes explain why they're about to become the Next Big Thing. Looking around at the frenzy of handshakes and networking after the event, he confessed, "It's kind of crazy."

Pinkston credits some of his meetup's steady growth to the advent of crowd funding: web sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where inventors can raise money for a project without having to seek out traditional investors.

"Investors are still not super into this," he said. "The crowd is certainly the ones where most funding seems to come from."

But oftentimes, it's once makers get the money to build their products that the real work begins. Max Gunawan raised $400,000 by selling pre-orders for his Lumio portable light -- a surprisingly bright LED lamp that runs on batteries and opens up like an accordion, but collapses down to look like a book. Gunawan is still building the devices one at a time, by hand. Now, he has to make the leap from making to manufacturing. But he insists he's ready.

"I have a game plan," Gunawan said. "That's why I gave a lot of padding and buffer time to meet the demand."

But not everyone has a game plan, says VentureBeat writer Christina Farr, who's closely followed the evolution of crowd funding as an alternative to traditional venture capital.

"I see these founders trying to get these products out the door, and just being overwhelmed," she said. "They know nothing about manufacturing, they don't have the manpower to deliver, and they end up kind of just upsetting their backers."

The failure to ship products has become enough of a problem that Kickstarter recently laid out new, stricter rules for hardware makers who want to raise money on the site. They're no longer allowed to accept orders for large quantities of a product, and all photos have to be of a working prototype.

The new rules haven't slowed down Anton Willis, who says he's made 25 prototypes of his folding kayak, Oru Kayak. And the Kickstarter policy is decidedly small potatoes compared to the regulatory spiderweb Tamim Hamid faced, getting FDA approval for his TechShop-built laser hair growth helmet called Theradome. If you ask David Lang, who's getting ready to start manufacturing his OpenROV underwater robot, makers are a driven bunch -- because building things is part of what it means to be human.

"In a world where a lot of people spend most of their days sending email, moving bits around the screen, I think the process of making something tangible is really exciting," Lang said.


Load Comments