Ford, TechShop Partner on Detroit Location to Help Everyday Inventors Create, Build—and Commercialize—New Technologies

7/28/11Follow @XconomyDET

At first glance, the nondescript office park at 800 Republic Drive in Allen Park, MI, is notable only for being situated next to the Detroit Lions’ practice facility. That’s set to change on Nov. 18, when the building will be transformed into TechShop Detroit, a joint project between Ford and TechShop, the DIY communal fabrication studio where everyone from garage-workshop tinkerers to tech-savvy rocket scientists can come and create their own homegrown inventions.

Ford is the first automaker to work with Menlo Park, CA-based TechShop, which operates a network of membership-based workshops similar to health clubs, except instead of getting access to treadmills and barbells, members who pay $100 per month can get their hands on 3D printers, laser cutters, industrial-grade sewing and textile equipment, vehicle bays, and virtually every kind of tool and software you can imagine. And the Detroit outpost of TechShop will be the first one to be paired with a facility geared toward helping TechShop members commercialize their inventions.

Imagination, says Jim Newton, TechShop’s founder and chairman, is the entire impetus for the operation.

“All we care about is that you have an idea, and our staff will help you turn that idea into a real, live thing,” Newton said at a press event today. “Our mission is not that big—we just want to usher in the next Industrial Revolution.”

TechShop Detroit will also help fuel a vision that Ford Global Technologies, the domestic auto industry’s only internal intellectual property management and licensing group, hopes to bring to life—a first-of-its-kind intellectual property exchange and technology showroom where everyday inventors, industry insiders, universities and research labs can display and even license their automotive innovations and other ideas.

“The showroom idea can be considered TechShop Plus,” said Bill Coughlin, president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies. “It will be an open meeting place that will enable inventors to showcase what they create in TechShop and then negotiate, network, and even sell their idea to players in the automotive industry, from manufacturers and suppliers to research institutions and startups.”

The innovation exchange, which will be housed in the Republic Drive facility alongside TechShop, will be managed by the Detroit-based AutoHarvest Foundation, a new nonprofit organization set up by auto executives to help connect the auto industry with metro Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“I like to think of [the AutoHarvest Foundation] as the Noah’s Ark of thought leaders in the innovation marketplace,” Jayson D. Pankin, AutoHarvest’s president, said in an interview. “We have links to the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the manufacturing economy, entrepreneurial talent at all stages, venture capitalists, and intellectual property experts.”

AutoHarvest’s goal, Pankin said, is to become the engine that drives the new economy by accelerating product development, growing companies, and creating new jobs. It hopes to go global in 2012, with its alpha stage already underway in Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Allen Park is TechShop’s fifth location, joining outposts in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Jose, and Raleigh, NC. TechShop officials call metro Detroit a natural fit for the workshop because of the abundance of hobbyists, backyard mechanics, and even seasoned engineering professionals concentrated here. The Detroit outpost started as a simple conversation between officials from Ford and TechShop at the Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA, in spring 2010. Things moved quickly from there, and, appropriately, the official announcement of the opening of TechShop Detroit will be made at this weekend’s Maker Faire at the Henry Ford in Dearborn.

“We want this space to inspire all inventive individuals and communities in and around Detroit to innovate and create,” Coughlin said.

Newton has big plans for the future of TechShop, as well. To build interest in the brand, he’s launching a reality television series next year that will follow a select group of TechShop members and will be produced and hosted by Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame. Also next year, TechShop is planning to open a location in a 26,000-square-foot former hardware store on Jay Street in Brooklyn. His goal is to open another eight locations across the country in 2012. Eventually, Newton said he’d like to see a TechShop in every community.

Seeing some raised eyebrows among the assembled guests, Newton clarified: “If they have a Home Depot, or a Lowe’s, or a Whole Foods, that’s the size of community we’re aiming for.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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