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Paradise for tech tinkerers

TechShop, an innovative haven for fans of personal fabrication, is bringing its DIY message to cities around the U.S. Photos: Hobbyists heed TechShop's siren song

MENLO PARK, CALIF.--If you're the kind of Silicon Valley tinkerer who likes to make things using plasma cutters, laser etchers, and other such tools, but you don't have the small fortune, space, or time it would take to set up your own workshop, TechShop may well be the kind of place that will get your blood flowing and your inner fabricator energized.

TechShop is a 13-month-old operation here that is hard to classify. Let's call it a mix between a fabrication lab, a mechanic's shop, a do-it-yourself pottery shop, and a health club.

Started by Jim Newton, entrepreneur and former science adviser to the Discovery Channel's hit show MythBusters, TechShop is a place where people can come any day of the week to learn how to use one of dozens of powerful fabrication tools and machines that almost no one has in their own garage, for no other purpose than to make cool things.

Until now, TechShop has only been in this small town better known for being ground zero for venture capitalists. But if all goes well, starting next July 4, TechShop franchises will be opening up in eight other cities across the United States including Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Sacramento, Calif.

Newton also plans to trade in his current location, which he calls a prototype for the business, and expand to two company-owned locations in San Francisco and Sunnyvale, Calif., a move that would mean people from throughout the Bay Area would have closer access to TechShop.

It's no surprise, really, that something like TechShop could attract the interest and money required to expand to eight new cities. After all, this is the "maker" era, when events like Maker Faire can draw tens of thousands to Bay Area and Austin celebrations of hacking, fabrication, DIY (Do It Yourself) culture, and general creative energy. Make and ReadyMade magazines have become hits bringing a modern spin to the creativity spurred by Popular Mechanics, and everywhere you look, Web sites like Etsy and Instructables.com are showing people how easy it is to make things themselves rather than rely on the work of others.

Further, because TechShop is open to the public, users can benefit from the creative energy, skills, and knowledge of other makers on hand.

"The community of people at TechShop is probably the best part of working on a project there," Silicon Valley observer Guy Kawasaki wrote in a blog post recently. "All sorts of interesting, smart people hang out at TechShop and work on projects ranging from electric vehicles from bikes to motorcycles to cars to commercial vans, self-balancing human transport devices, robots, inventions, prototypes, Burning Man projects, and everyday hobby projects."

The pricing model is aimed at opening up TechShop's doors to the maximum number of people. You can buy a day pass for $30, or a monthly membership for $100. An annual membership is also available at a slight discount over the monthly fee.

And while it's true that charging $100 a month puts TechShop out of the reach of most lower-income people who might want to use it, Newton said most people's reaction to the pricing has been surprise at its affordability.

"Most people say, 'I don't know how you can give me access to this place for $100 a month,'" Newton said. But "it's not for everybody. You do have to have some money to work on projects."

It's unfortunate that TechShop isn't universally affordable, but given the $250,000 that Newton said it cost to get the business off the ground, it's understandable. And that price was for, among other things, mainly used equipment.

At the new franchise outlets around the country, however, members will have access to all-new equipment, Newton said.

"We're talking with suppliers now to give us shipping containers full of all the equipment we need for each location," he explained, adding that he wants to "literally take it out of the box and plug it all in."

Further, Newton and his team will closely oversee the development of each of the franchises, making sure that each one adheres to the policies and guidelines that direct the original.

"A franchise is a well-oiled machine with systems that tell you how to deal with things," he said. "We say, when this kind of fire comes up, here's what you do."

That there are soon to be eight TechShop franchises is an interesting development, given that only two years ago, the company didn't even exist.

Newton recalled that he had gone to the original Maker Faire in the spring of 2006 at the invitation of organizer Dale Dougherty and had set up little more than a card table with some fliers.

But by the end of the event, he said, more than 250 people had filled out forms indicating their interest, and throughout, his table was entertaining a line of inquisitors at least two to three people deep.

No wonder. Newston's concept--of a place where he could work on the kinds of projects he had been able to do when he had access to tools and machinery as an instructor at the College of San Mateo and at the MythBusters offices--was deeply attractive to a lot of people.

"People were telling us they'd move to California if we opened this thing up," he said. And a lot of "people suggested TechShop franchises."

And that was even before the current location opened.

On October 1, 2006, TechShop opened its doors, and quickly became the mainstream alternative to some of the pseudo-legal artists' workshops proliferating around the Bay Area.

And it makes sense, Newton said.

"If you go into a first-grade class and ask how many people like to make things, everyone raises their hands," he said. "Twenty-five years later, you'd only get a couple hands (but) those people are all still makers."

TechShop is built around providing its members with a safe place to go to learn the skills they need to make the kinds of projects they want.

That's why in addition to access to the tools and machinery, TechShop offers a series of instructional classes on how to use those machines.

"You can machine aluminum and make prototypes of something you've always wanted to make," Newton said. "I think people want to make things everywhere. (But they're usually) hampered by the lack of tools, space and a creative community to work within."

Now, however, TechShop is home to all kinds of makers creating almost any kind of project.

To Newton, one of the most memorable projects is a telepresence robot being built by a pair brothers that lets them log on from any computer and direct the robot around the TechShop space.

"He'll drive it into my office to say hi to me," laughs Newton.

At the same time, several members are using the space and tools to create prototypes to pitch to potential investors, he said.

For now, TechShop is a heavily male environment, with just 20 percent female membership.

But Newton said he is intent on changing that.

"I really want to do (more outreach to women) as we expand," he said. "I really want it to be very family oriented and not just for geek guys."