TechShop: The Cheap, Easy Innovation Revolution

Last Updated Mar 5, 2011 11:07 AM EST

"It has never been cheaper to start a company in all of human history." So says Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, a center for innovation and invention.

What TechShop offers is the space, the tools and machinery needed to turn your idea into a prototype and then into a functioning product. For $125 a month, any inventor can gain access to, and learn how to use, everything from 3D printers to lathes, drill presses and table saws. You can rent tables, offices and buy expertise and machine time by the hour. You no longer need tremendous technical expertise to turn your idea into reality. You just need time, tutors and the machinery TechShop provides. And just as Kinko's spawned thousands of independent design shops, TechShop expects to create thousands of new businesses as it rolls out across America.

Cheaper than Starbucks
"The cost of doing a start up now is less than a Starbucks addiction!" says Hatch. "We have three kinds of entrepreneurs coming to us. There are Mom and Pop types just looking to add a little income with a product. There are design entrepreneurs designing something that they'll license or that has been commissioned -- stuff you won't see in Pottery Barn! And then there the deeply committed entrepreneurs who will use what we have here to prove their business idea and raise the money they need to make it scale."

Recent TechShop successes include Patrick Buckley's award-winning Dodocase. The trap for inventors used to be that you needed money to make a prototype but since you couldn't get it without proof of concept, you never got off the ground. But Buckley - a research scientist - joined TechShop, used its ShopBot (a robotic carving tool) to prototype his iPad case and had a finished version for under $500. In less than a year he had over a million dollars in sales.

Clustered Systems did the same thing. Its prototype enabled the company to get a $2.8 million department of energy grant because the product promises to save 1% of all energy in US, and $80bn of the $250bn spent globally cooling data centers. This is, Hatch says modestly, "a major play. The system is 50% more efficient than any competitive offering - and they did it by signing up for $125 a month, renting a table and producing the first system that worked."

Similarly, Jack Dorsey and Jim McElvey used TechShop to prototype Square, a gadget that plugs into your iPhone and turns it into a credit card terminal. It was something McElvey needed - he lost business when his customers didn't have cash or cheques - but as a glass blower, hardware design and manufacture wasn't his forte. It wasn't Dorsey's either; one of the co-founders of Twitter, software was his patch. But they could prototype the whole thing using TechShop's equipment and expertise.

No Inventors Left Behind
What TechShop is doing is profound and Hatch knows it. He plans to roll out hundreds of TechShops over the next five years, along with television shows illustrating how easy and powerful it can be to put your idea into action.

"For centuries," he says, "Everyone is creative - but in the past, if you weren't good at drawing in 4th of 5th grade, you gave up. You weren't great at manual tasks so you never did woodwork. People became disassociated from the tools of production. And our educational system teaches you how to work for the man, crushing the creative spirit in an attempt to create drones for a capitalist system that won't exist in twenty years. But now the technology is easy to use and the machinery's cheaper than ever. So you can have an idea and execute it without having to go to art school or engineering school for eight years. What that means is that anyone and everyone can be an inventor. It's not an industrial revolution; it's a creative revolution."


Further reading:
The Secret to Innovation
4 Myths that get in the Way of Innovation
How to Spot Trends for Business Innovation
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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