Maker Faire Taps Into Detroit’s Sense of Mission, History as City of Tinkerers and, Yes, Entrepreneurs

The spark of innovation can often be found in outrage—outrage that the world, or some part of it, does not yet contain something that has yet to be invented or brought to it. And James Peyer, University of Michigan stem cell biology Ph.D. student, part-time do-it-yourself entrepreneur, and participant in this weekend’s Detroit Maker Faire, is outraged.

Here’s why: When he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, his younger brother was taking advanced high school biology courses. “I was appalled by the tremendously low quality of exposure to real science that high-schoolers were getting,” Peyer says. “They didn’t actually learn anything about how research was done, how science was actually done, and how we learn new things, and how we innovate and invent using science.”

That was outrage No. 1. Here’s outrage No. 2: An important tool scientists use in biotechnology is a PCR machine, or thermal cycler, to manipulate and replicate DNA. But even the smallest and cheapest PCR machine is $2,000—beyond the means of most high school science departments. The machines, themselves, are really simple—an aluminum block that heats up and cools down to rip apart DNA. Still, universities with big budgets or third-party funding agencies are already configured for PCR machines to cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, so that is how much they cost for everybody.

“When we’re paying a couple hundred bucks for something like an iPhone, I feel like an aluminum block that heats up and cools down should not be $2,000,” Peyer says.

So, Peyer is doing something about it, to try and fill a void in the world to placate his outrage. His company, Otyp, is creating a simple kit for high-school science classes, a kind of “Hello, World” tutorial program for biotechnology that teaches high-schoolers the basics of manipulating DNA. Without getting too detailed on the technology, the experiment lets students clone a fluorescent gene and paint it out on a petri dish in whatever pattern they want. Otyp is also creating an inexpensive, open source version of a PCR machine that local school districts can actually afford.

Now, take Otyp, and Peyer’s sense of mission for it, and multiply it by 290. And that’s what you have at this weekend’s (July 31-Aug. 1) Maker Faire at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI—hundreds of innovative, outraged people who are hungry to change the world by filling a void.

This is the spirit of Detroit that Sherry Huss, director of the Maker Faire, wants to tap into. The Henry Ford, she says, is really a museum about the history of making, showcasing what Detroit was like when it was a city of tinkerers and makers and entrepreneurs, like Henry Ford himself.

“We’re still finding that there’s a strong base of tinkerers and creaters and hackerspaces, a rich environment in the sense of manufacturing,” Huss says. “If we can understand the essence here, and share the spirit, the can-do spirit, it might be something that could actually be replicated in other cities that have been hit equally as hard.”

Even though Huss has lived on the West Coast for the past 30 years, she grew up in Cleveland. So, she says, she “gets it.” She knows what it’s like to watch your community bounce up and down, economically. And she knows there’s a hunger in economically hard-hit communities that cannot be found anywhere else. In the Bay Area, she says, much is taken for granted. In Detroit, there’s a sense of mission.

As evidence of that, she points to the half-dozen or so hackerspaces that have cropped up recently in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. Participating in the Maker Faire will be representatives from the hackerspaces a2Geeks of Ann Arbor, i3Detroit of Ferndale, All Hands Active of Ann Arbor, and the newly minted OmniCorp Detroit just now moving into Eastern Market space in Detroit. Hackerspaces from other regions in the Midwest, including Chicago’s Pumping Station One, will also be represented.

What makes hackerspaces important? They’re a place where computer workers—software developers, designers, what have you—come together to work and share companionship and ideas, sort of a new incarnation of the community clubhouses that have been lost when business went digital, Huss says.

“We’ve spent the last 20 years becoming more and more isolated at our computer and working in cyberspace,” she says. “Hackerspaces signify the importance of physical objects.”

She hopes the inaugural Detroit Maker Faire, part of a national series of similar events run by Make Magazine and O’Reilly Media, will become an annual event that brings makers from around the region together. That shouldn’t be a problem, given the intense interest so far. Their goal was 200 makers participating. They now have 295.

“I think there’s going to be a positive impact, and I look forward to watching this grow and flourish,” Huss says. “In some cases, I think there are more people rooting for Detroit than any other area. In New York and San Francisco, this stuff happens all the time. Here it’s really a sense of ownership.

Once again, the Maker Faire will take place July 31 – Aug. 1 at The Henry Ford.

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  • jeff

    I agree that real world science is an imperative part of developing our future scientists. However, PCR is a patented technology. As simplistic as the technique is someone came up with it, applied and was awarded a patent on it and then commercialized it. I would suggest to Mr. Peyer to consider getting a license to sell it and then tell us what his selling price will be for such a product (or a lawyer). PCR machines used to cost tens of thousands of dollars which resulted in the technology not being readily accessible to a great number of research labs. If you want to teach Real World Science please do not make toys as students who use them simply need to relearn everything when they get into the real world. It also teaches them that it’s ok to rip off ideas and make bad knock offs.

  • Jeff, PCR machines went off patent in 2005.

  • Hi Jeff,

    To follow up from Howard’s comment. While there are still certain types of PCR machines that are still patented. These machines have special cooling systems that make the machine itself the invention. The process of heating and cooling an aluminum block was never actually patented, only the process of using Taq polymerase to perform PCR. That’s why PCR machines made before 2005 came with a sticker that said “Licensed for PCR”.

    Now that PCR is out of patent, machine makers don’t need to pay Perkin Elmer and Roche for licencing fees. However, since 2005, the cost of PCR machines has fallen very little; research labs are already used to paying many thousands of dollars for a machine, so there’s not enough competition for companies to lower the costs of their devices. They’re just taking higher profit margins instead.

    That’s why there’s a lot of room for a baseline, simple machine. We’re hoping it will be a great tool for schools, and with the prototype that we’ve completed, we think that labs on a budget will also be interested.

  • Great piece Howard. I flew in from Boston to my hometown of Detroit to support the Maker Faire. I was not disappointed. What a great start and a perfect place to know what to do with the adrenaline and resource focus the O’Reilly Media and Make Magazine, The Henry Ford, and the Kauffman Foundation and so many others helped to kick off with the Can Do Camp and Maker Faire.

    You should check out Context Furniture for the way they are extending tools of development and production to independent furniture designers. And…they are operating out of the condemned basement of the country’s first mall…Northland. They have to be brave souls. I can intro you if you like.