TechShop’s “Innovation Cathedral” Comes to San Francisco—Serving Craftsmen and Entrepreneurs on the Gold’s Gym Model

12/16/10Follow @wroush

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geometric reduction in cost. We are in a space now where, for half a million dollars in hardware, we can deploy a complete TechShop.”

Four years after the company opened in Menlo Park, the operation is running in the black, Hatch says. And that’s mobilized TechShop’s financial backers—mostly individual investors from Silicon Valley who have “a passion for what we’re doing,” according to Hatch—to invest in the San Francisco expansion, which is to be followed in early 2011 by new locations in San Jose, Detroit, and Brooklyn.

Laser cutter

Laser cutter

In Menlo Park, about half of TechShop’s members are engineers in their day jobs, but in San Francisco, the company expects to attract a slightly less technical crowd. “The people [in Menlo Park] range from astrophysicists and rocket scientists to 19-year-old kids doing silkscreen T-shirts and everyone in between,” says Hatch. “We think that coming to San Francisco, we are going to see a lot more artists, professionals, architects, fashion designers, and so forth.” Members tend to be middle class or above—the $100 per month needs to be in their disposable income range. “But the core piece is that they like to make things, and that defies age, occupation, or race descriptions.”

If any TechShop alumni can be called famous, Patrick Buckley and Craig Dalton are among them. Buckley is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded WebMynd, a Y Combinator-backed startup in San Francisco that makes a search sidebar for Web browsers. Dalton had co-founded mobile startups and a sporting goods company called BooCooGear. In early 2010 the pair decided to enter the “Build-A-Business” competition sponsored by Ottawa-based Shopify, a provider of e-commerce storefronts; their idea was to create iPad cases using a mix of high-tech fabrication and traditional book binding techniques.

TechShop members at work

TechShop members at work

Recounts Hatch, “Patrick came in two weeks before the iPad came out, and goes to one of our dream coaches—we don’t call them facilities guys, they help you build your dreams—and he said ‘I want to use bamboo in the case, what classes do I need to take?’” TechShop’s coaches showed Buckley how to use Autodesk design software to design the frames for the iPad cases and computer-controlled woodcutting “shopbots” to cut them. A textiles instructor showed him what materials and glues to use for the cloth cases.

“He made 10 or 15 of them, and put them online, and very smartly sent one to Gawker and one to The Unofficial Apple Weblog, and it was about three weeks from the time he learned how to use the machines to his first orders,” says Hatch. The rest is history: The blog coverage brought in thousands more orders for the $50 cases, Dodocase won Shopify’s $100,000 grand prize, and the company hopes to hit $3 million in revenues in its first year in business, according to media reports.

Clustered Systems is another of TechShop’s breakout success stories. Electrical engineer Phil Hughes and a partner spent about a year inside TechShop building a liquid-cooled server cabinet designed to be 15 to 30 percent more energy-efficient than … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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