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Maker Movement Continues

To Grow In Phoenix Metro

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Image retrieved from HeatSync Labs Flicker account and Used Under Creative Commons license.
As More Cities And Entrepreneurs See The Benefits Of Utilizing The Strengths Of Hackerspace Environments, Collaborative Environments Continue To Innovate And Inspire

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By Jonathan Cisneros
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 2, 2015 — Iced Dev, NextGen Auction, Octoblu. These are just a few of the companies that are succeeding as a result of the Maker Movement that has taken root in the Phoenix area. Each of these companies started at Heatsync Labs, a non-profit based in Mesa, Ariz., just one of a handful of hackerspaces located in the Valley.

The workshops put on by hackerspaces, also called makerspaces, are part of a larger national trend of community-based workshops aimed at helping engineers, entrepreneurs, artists, and students apply and learn hands-on tech skills to make their projects a reality. It's like a mix between a coffee shop and a high school shop classroom. Depending on the space, members pay dues to keep the lights on, but visitors are often invited to take free classes and work on their projects.

The spaces have equipment ranging from laser cutters, CNC machines, electronic components, soldering stations, welding equipment, woodworking tools, and much more. Naturally, there is free WiFi, desks, office equipment, and (of course) coffee.

If you look at a map, it seems the East Valley has Phoenix and the West Valley beat when it comes to hackerspaces. Chandler boasts a TechShop location, one of a national chain of fully-equipped workshops with more than $1 million of professional equipment and software available for students and entrepreneurs alike. There are staff members available 24/7 to help with questions on how to use the equipment.

Gangplank, another hackerspace, has two locations in Chandler and Avondale. Downtown Phoenix has MACH, a makerspace that operates during library hours. It has computers loaded with Blender (an open-source creative suite), a 3D printer and other equipment to teach school-aged kids about technology.

The successful mobile-payment company Square got their start out of TechShop in San Jose, Calif., where two founders developed the company's first hardware prototypes. Turned On, a visual status indicator for GoPro cameras, was developed by the company HYPOXIC at the Chandler TechShop location after being successfully funded on Kickstarter.

Not Your Typical Office
At most hackerspaces, there tends to be a certain group who prefers to stay at their desks and treat the space like a more traditional office. Between moments of quiet work, members bounce around programming ideas, make use of the whiteboard, and joke around with other members. Sometimes there are spontaneous group Q&A sessions for whomever needs help with something at that moment.

The other group takes a more hands-on approach, be it uploading files to the 3D printer, moving material and adjusting settings on the laser cutter, or working on some 'mystery project' with bundles of electronic components.

At times it is chaotic, interspersed with quiet moments of focused work but there is always a genuine sense of camaraderie, like a loose gang of coworkers who have chosen to work on their own projects side-by-side.

Valley Cities Cooperating For Economic Growth
“It really is a region and we all work closely together,” says Christine Mackay, director of community and economic development for the city of Phoenix. Formerly an employee of the city of Chandler, she has worked to attract more creative entrepreneurs and “makers” to the Valley and provide resources for those starting out.

Growing local tech businesses here, while they're small, is a top priority.

“We actively go out and help recruit really cool and innovative companies,” she said.

Companies that become established and grow their business here are vested in the community. Over the long-term, they can contribute knowledge and skills that go beyond the jobs they create, according to Mackay. It does, however, go against the traditional model of focusing on attracting large corporations to set up shop in the Valley. It seems the Phoenix image of golf and recreation isn't enough to attract every type of entrepreneur.

Creative companies are looking for places to develop and do business.

“If they can't in Arizona they'll go to Seattle, Austin, or somewhere else where they have support. If they leave, then it's shame on us. We should be working to keep them here,” said Mackay.

While the support provided isn't necessarily financial, their office does handle requests of such groups on a “case-by-case basis.” For example, it could be an upgrade to a facility's utility connections in an old building where they'll make a call to APS to negotiate on the space's behalf.

There are grants available and the city can help connect entrepreneurs by facilitating introductions to knowledgeable leaders, angel investors, and funding sources.

Mackay says the city of Phoenix is currently working on a web portal where makers, hackers, and tech entrepreneurs can easily get an entire package on resources. In the meantime they should call the office directly to connect and learn how the city can help them get started.

Bright Future Ahead
Many companies are finding success with the hackerspace model. Entrepreneurs have the opportunity to create their own businesses while keeping development costs low – and it's available to virtually anyone with an interest in technology. It has already resulted in more jobs for local residents.

Putting aside the economic benefits, these spaces fill an important gap for young people interested in learning about technology in an accessible, community-focused way.  The progress made so far is promising and with continued cooperation between Valley cities, it has the potential to bring more prosperity and opportunity for everyone in the future.

Jonathon Cisneros is a freelance writer — among other things — living in Phoenix. Visit his site at jonathanjoaquincisneros.com.
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