COLUMBUS, Ohio — This Midwestern city may just be the heart and soul of the maker movement. Its techies, artists, welders and machinists have earned international acclaim for their work, which includes everything from handheld 3-D scanners to drones that sense leaks in oil pipelines.
“I firmly believe we can plant the flag as the capital of the maker movement,” said Columbus’s maker maven Alex Bandar during a Columbus Startup Week session on Thursday.
Bandar is the leader of the Columbus Idea Foundry, the engine of Central Ohio’s maker community. The Idea Foundry has nearly 800 members and occupies a 60,000-square-foot former motorcycle warehouse. Bandar — who holds a PhD in materials science and engineering from Lehigh University and started the Idea Foundry in 2008 — said it’s the largest makerspace in the world.
“Probably the thing that I’m proudest about is that we’ve designed a business model that does in fact stand on its own feet, at least in this market,” Bandar said.
That’s no easy task. Not every makerspace is thriving.
Last year, NIMBY in Oakland launched an Indiegogo Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $125,000 to pay back rent, while Makerhaus, a 10,000-square foot makerspace in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, closed 18 months after opening.
“This is a top-heavy business model—capital intensive, liability intensive and talent intensive,” Bandar said. “And the market is artists, students and entrepreneurs—so giant costs and people without deep pockets.”
The lack of a tried-and-true formula is another obstacle. “This isn’t a pizza place or a law firm,” Bandar says. “This kind of business is very new.”
Bandar describes the Idea Foundry as a “Montessori school for adults.” Classes are offered in such things as welding, woodworking, blacksmithing and digital photography. After taking classes, individuals then can sign up for memberships that cost $35 per month. They also pay hourly rates—from $5 to $35—to use the various community tools, such as laser cutters and 3-D printers.
Unlike many other makerspaces, the Idea Foundry is a for-profit organization.
“I originally thought our mission was to provide tools and education and access to Central Ohio tech and creative communities,” Bandar said. “Then I had an epiphany about two or three years ago. Our mission is actually to make money. And if we can make money, then we can help people.”
Bandar believes for-profit maker groups have a better chance to succeed. “They are tied to providing value rather than tied to providing experience,” he said.
The Idea Foundry also has benefited from strong civic support—generous grants and municipal incentives that allowed it to move into its new home in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus. Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman considers the Idea Foundry a linchpin in his plan to revitalize Franklinton, the city’s oldest neighborhood.
Bandar predicts the maker movement will continue to grow in Columbus and elsewhere. Based on current patterns, he expects the number of spaces to quintuple to 5,000 worldwide by 2020.
He also foresees maker and co-working communities merging to allow for more collaboration between technical and creative types. And the Idea Foundry wants to lead the way: The organization plans to add a co-working space next year.
“That’s really how I think people will monetize their ideas,” Bandar said.
Is mainstream acceptance around the corner for the maker movement? It could happen, Bandar says, if fabrication laboratories pop up in high schools, expiring patents lower the cost of 3-D printers and freelancing gains wider cultural acceptance. Bandar welcomes these developments, but he also doesn’t want the movement to lose its soul.
“I hope it never becomes mainstream,” he said. “I’d like it to stay grass-roots, edgy, boots on the ground.”