Idea Foundry Origin Story
As a kid, I was always inspired by visions of the future that I had read about in sci fi books and seen in movies - "hardcore sci-fi" like Arthur C. Clarke (2001, Rendezvous with Rama) and more pop stuff like Star Wars, Bladerunner, Aliens.... Worlds where robots would do our bidding, machines could make nearly anything we needed, and computers were more than just fancy calculators, but could actually take some of the heavy lifting out of mental busy work and free us up for ideation. (Like I've said elsewhere, humans are pretty terrible calculators, but we're pretty great thinkers).
(The future looks bright!)
Thus, when I went to college, I wanted to help usher in that new era. I figured I'd be involved in creating things like robots, or virtual reality systems, or flying vehicles, or something even cooler. So I gave my advisor a headache and studied various fields - from computer science to electrical engineering to mechanical and more. I quickly realized that, although you can design nearly anything, you can't necessarily build everything. You can design an airplane with a mile wide wingspan, or a space elevator to the moon, but today's engineering materials can't support those performance needs. Put simply, things break. So instead I decided that it would be cool to invent a new material - I thought that would be like adding another color to the palette that all the other engineering disciplines were painting with. If you make a stronger steel, then maybe you could construct taller skyscrapers. Create a more conductive copper, and maybe you can make a faster computer. Invent a more heat resistant plastic and perhaps you could make a plastic car engine. Fun stuff!
A space elevator would be cool....
....but right now, we don't have materials that could build it.
So I studied Materials Science and Engineering; got my BS, MS, and PhD in it. (Did my undergrad at RPI and my grad work at Lehigh University). At Lehigh, I fell into metallurgy. Not hard, since Lehigh is across the river from Bethlehem Steel - at one point, the nation's largest producer of ships and the 2nd largest producer of steel. I figured I'd get my degree, then go across the river and do R&D at Beth Steel, and help bring about new materials for exciting new products.
And during my grad studies, Beth Steel went bankrupt. (If you're interested in the gory gossip, read Jim Collin's amazing book "Good to Great", which works hard to determine what makes a good company become a great company. He and his "chimps" - research associates - compared 11 pairs of companies, where each pair was in the same industry, the same era, about the same size; yet one became great while the other failed. Beth Steel was the failure comparison beside Nucor Steel, the company that became "great". Fascinating stuff).
Trust me and read this book.
So I realized that I needed to do something "innovative" if I was going to remain relevant. Thus, for the last year of my dissertation, I decided to learn Java and see if I could take the materials science physics I had been studying in my textbooks and put those equations into code to create software apps. Those apps would allow designers to "virtually" tinker with different materials and processes to produce quantifiably predictable properties, without having to spend money on materials, laboratory equipment, testing, machinery, factories, etc. (The virtual tests work only if you get the physics right - a big caveat....). However, more important than what I learned trying to code physics in Java was the broader impact of open-source software, free education and a globally flat planet.
I was shocked to learn that I could legally download the Java software development kit (SDK) completely free from the Sun Microsystems website 12 years ago (now available here from Oracle, after they acquired Sun). I could legally download the tutorials for free; and I could surf the web and chat up forums for any tips/tricks I needed. In short, the knowledge and software to do powerful, useful, practical things was all legally available for free. Late one evening, when I was having trouble figuring something out on my own, I was contemplating giving up for the night and turning in for bed. But I realized that people all across the world had access to these same learning and development resources. And if they were hungrier and more intellectually aggressive than I, they could study longer and work harder. If they lived in a lower-cost labor market (say Vietnam or Brazil), then I would have no competitive advantage over them once we both started offering our services in the increasingly flat world of the global marketplace. That, to me, was a wake-up call.
At any rate, I got my PhD in the ridiculously narrow field of "computational metallurgy", and interviewed at the four places on the planet that might have hired me: Waseda University in Tokyo; NIST's metallurgy division in DC; the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems in Columbus, Misssippi; and a small Battelle spin-out called Scientific Forming Technologies Corporation in Columbus, OH. (Columbus was the "porridge just right" kinda place for me :-) . In Columbus, I worked for a couple of years at SFTC, and enjoyed exploring all sorts of alloys, processes, and industries (aerospace, aviation, and maritime aluminum alloys; structural and automotive steels; biomedical titanium; and other great materials with comic-book names like "Udimet", "Waspalloy", "Inconel", and other "nickel-base Superalloys" that are used in jet engines). I had the opportunity to do research with industry, government organizations, universities, and great clients all over the world. My only problem was that everything was virtual - I never actually got my hands dirty "making" stuff.
Example of predicting macroscopic material properties and part performance from atomistic physics and computer simulations (from Scully, Faraday Discuss., 2015, 180, 577-593)
Thankfully, in a strange family symmetry, while I was studying metallurgy, my sister Leila pursued artistic metalsmithing and sculpture, received her MFA, and became the sculpture technician for a fantastic arts community called the Vermont Studio Center, The VSC is the largest international artists' and writers' residency program in the United States. Professional artists and writers go there for a month long stay, during which they'll learn different media. If you're a fine artist, perhaps you'll spend a month sculpting. If you're a photographer, you may spend a month with writers. Leila managed the sculpture studio and helped teach people how to use the resources there. She had invited me out a few weekends over the years, and it was she who first taught me to strike an oxyacetylne torch; who gave me some steel, a forge, a hammer, and told me to smith something; who introduced me to getting my hands dirty. :-)
One of the many gorgeous vantages of the Vermont Studio Center.
Who wouldn't want to learn there?
Those few weekends at the VSC were some of the most stimulating experiences of my life. Folks from places like Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and all over the US would come to learn and teach, explore on their own, and then gather in the evenings for snacks and beer around the campfire, trading stories, techniques, ideas, and making connections. It's a truly amazing place.
And one fateful weekend, Leila invited me to give a guest lecture to some of her art students (she was also a lecturer at Johnson State College). I had a new PhD in metallurgy, a cool tech job, and an ego, and I thought "Great! I'll teach these artists something practical." While delivering my presentation, I rapidly learned that not only could I teach her art students nothing useful - but that they were all better welders, machinists, blacksmiths, makers than I was. If I had an idea, maybe I could write a computer program about it; if they had an idea, they just made the damn thing. This did two things. It humbled me pretty quickly, and it made me very envious of their talents. I yearned to be in a creative environment like they had; I wanted to realize my own ideas; and I wanted to make that part of my life (my job, my career, my passion). However, I didn't want to go back to school (I had spent way too many years in undergrad and grad school - I wasn't about to spend any more).
Callback to the free information and free software tools I discovered earlier. By now, YouTube had been invented. You could watch a video, for free, on nearly anything - how to make a table; how to make a mobile app; how to create a website. Resources like WordPress made it easier than ever to make a website. Digital prototyping resources like 3D printers, laser cutters, and computer controlled milling machines had come way down in price, and were becoming affordable to enthusiasts - yet were still powerful enough to make interesting things. And crowdfunding - sites like Kickstarter - meant that if you did have a good idea, not only could you watch videos to learn how to make it; download free open source software to design it; 3D print or laser cut it; but you could then create a quick video with your smartphone, upload it to a crowdfunding website like Kickstarter, and be warmed by the world's reaction to your idea as they funded it. This was exciting, and interesting, and gamechanging, and I wanted to explore it further. I didn't want to wait all year for one interesting weekend at VSC; I wanted this to be part of my regular life here in Columbus.
So I decided to get involved in the local arts community. I began by renting a studio at a live-work arts complex called Milo Arts here in town. My studio was #110, and I still have a lot of affection for it. I wanted to use the space and the environment to explore interesting interactive mashups between art and technology. I bought a nitinol shape-memory alloy kit. Nitinol, unlike most metals, doesn't expanded when it's heated - it contracts. This means that it acts like a muscle. The source of heat can be resistance heating from electric wires controlled by a little programmable logic controller (I used the 68HC11EVB in the Embedded Control class I TA'ed at RPI - see my blog post here about my affinity for embedded control). I used that to actuate a couple of petals from a silk flower I bought at Michael's.
The Milo Arts building in Columbus, OH
A video of the nitinol shape-memory alloy actuated flowers I made at my old studio at Milo Arts.
Projects like that, which blend art and tech, made me wonder.... Is it possible to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) through hands-on, creative, artistic projects? I was in engineering school for a long time, and I know that, although the applications are exciting, the subject matter can be rather dry when you're learning it. However, art is cool, creativity is empowering, and tech can be fun. So I started exploring projects that could "trick" kids into learning STEM through hands-on, creative, artistic projects. Add a Wordpress lesson on web design, graphic arts, and blogging, and you have a writing component; include a spreadsheet of costs, and then try to sell the product at the end, and you have a component on entrepreneurship.
I had a friend who was a teacher at Blendon Middle School, and when I mentioned that I was looking to start an educational program like this, she volunteered a couple of her students - two brothers, Matt and Drew. With their parents' help, we built a "steampunk computer station" - we took an old flip-top wood and metal pupil's desk, sanded and stained the top, lacquered the metal, installed an old computer inside it, and mounted an LCD on the underside of the flip-top desk. We inlaid the PC with wood and replaced the on-button with a large brass bolt. When it was closed, it just looked like a well-finished desk. When opened, it was a mashup of modern tech and classic design. And it was a helluva lot of fun to make. Rather than selling it, we donated it to the Red Chair Affair - a fundraiser for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. This was a hugely gratifying project - a bit artistic, a bit technical, a bit entrepreneurial, a bit socially forward - and with an educational component, an empowering component, a fun component, and the opportunity to make new friends. This was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
The "steampunk computer desk" we made to teach tech via hands-on, functional, creative projects
I eventually left Milo and rented my own commercial space off Leonard Avenue, near the Airport, in an arts complex called the Millworks. Marvin Katz was my landlord, and I owe him enormously for mentoring me in leasing commercial property (finding insurance, navigating permitting, building the space out, etc.). He was incredibly generous, and during the very first phone call I had with him (when I replied to his ad on Craigslist for commercial space) I told him I was looking to create a community workshop - and he immediately offered me an old CNC machine he had for years. Marvin was in the automotive industry for a while, and at one point had purchased all the remaining DeLorean car parts, and was making and selling DeLoreans (or, as I prefer to think of them, Time Machines.... :-) Those parts which he couldn't buy, he made - with the CNC machine he was offering me. That was one of many conversations about this culture that gave me the confidence that if I created a business which provided people access to tools and community, it would succeed. If I hadn't had such a supportive landlord and mentor like Marvin, my enthusiasm for this endeavor might have been quenched, and I never would have progressed. This was one of many hundred lucky happenstances that have contributed to the eventual success of the Idea Foundry. Marvin was also influential in my decision to go the "social enterprise" route rather than a 501(c)3 non-profit. I told him that my original goal was to be a non-profit (or, as I prefer to call them now, "for impact" - thank you, Christopher Celeste!). Marvin looked at me a moment when I told him that, and replied: "What's wrong with makin' a buck?" I stewed on that briefly, and thought "Nothing. There's nothing wrong with making a buck". Especially if the profits enable one to execute a positive mission. (I wasn't yet familiar with the concept of "social enterprises"). What also really appealed to me was that, if I could provide a value that others were willing to pay for, maybe I wouldn't need to spend a large chunk of my time applying for grants, seeking donations, or otherwise scrimping and scraping to cover the bills. Instead, we would have a for-profit business that stood on its own feet and provided a socially interesting service.
Our original space at the Millworks Arts Complex
I told myself I'd try this for a year - if it were a resounding success, I'd quit the dayjob and do this full time. If it were a dismal failure, I'd close up shop, wait 25 years, and try it again when I retired. I started by advertising in the arts section of Craigslist, seeking people to volunteer, to teach, and eventually to become paying members of our burgeoning community workshop. Thankfully, after a few months, we found a small handful of intrepid early adopters who showed up, bought into the mission, put their shoulder to the wheel, brought in excess tools from their garages and basements, fixed up donated gear dropped off at our shop, and started teaching each other how to use these tools. We started building a community of makers. After a year growing the tool base, showing up at arts events, continuing to search for more volunteers, and exploring this exotic business, we found that we had lots of interest (and lots of fun!) but no real revenue. But in conversations I had with everyone from artists to educators to entrepreneurs, there was so much support and enthusiasm for our mission that I was encouraged to put in another year.
Our first year at Independents Day, teaching people how to plasma cut in our welding-curtain tent
That second year (2009-2010) we found even more interest, and had a lot more fun, but our shop was still so dark, dirty, and inhospitable that we weren't providing a monetizable value. (After looking at our space, one woodworker friend of mine confided to me that "a twenty minute woodworking job would take two hours in there" - because he'd have to move equipment around, connect power cords, clean tables off, make space for his project, etc). We didn't yet have a "minimum viable product". I was still footing all of the bills, and that wasn't sustainable. Eventually, we had a small group of a dozen or two core volunteers/associates (it was hard to call people "members" yet, since we weren't really collecting dues). We had a decision to either contract our mission, become a small private co-op, splitting the fees among a few of us, but closing the doors to the public; or to move into an even larger space, take on more risk, but generate revenue by renting studio space to full-time members. At our small 2400 sf garage at the Millworks, I could afford to cover all of the bills even if nobody paid a single member's dues. (It just consumed all of my disposable income each month...). However, if we moved to a larger space, I'd be stepping off a cliff - I would now be on the hook for costs that I could no longer cover on my own; I would be reliant on our workshop's ability to provide sufficient value that people would pay to use it; I'd be dependent on our community to pay our fees; and we'd really have to make the business viable. Thankfully, folks agreed that they'd pay to rent space, pay to become members, pay to use tools, etc; and the decision was made to "go big or go home".
Our home for 4 years on Corrugated Way
We moved our entire shop to a larger 10,000 sf space in an industrial complex on Corrugated Way (near 5th and Cleveland), where we found a different type of landlord in Dave Wilson. If at first Dave was hard to read, you can't blame me. Dave was an ESPN-ranked top 100 poker player with a James Gandolfini power-paunch, a multi-million dollar construction company, and a conspicuously zero-tolerance for bullshit. I do not recommend negotiating business contracts with top-ranked poker players. He gave us a (well-deserved) fishy-eye when I explained to him who we were, what we were trying to do, and what our business model was. Ours was not a robust business to bank on being able to pay the now considerable rent, utilities, insurance, internet, security, trash, and other costs associated with commercial real estate. Thankfully, within a few months we had shown that we could, in fact, pay our bills. Furthermore, unbeknownst to us, Dave's daughter was an extremely talented artist and jeweler who had successfully written a grant application for her college to receive a $50k rapid prototyping machine with which to create jewelry. So it wasn't very long before we won Dave over, and he became a great supporter of ours. Another extremely lucky happenstance on our road to a sustainable business.
We were at Corrugated Way for four years (and those were formative times!). We expanded twice into neighboring units of the same industrial complex owned by Dave, until we were at 24,000 sf, with 40 studios, 100 members, and about a dozen businesses. I was invited to deliver a TEDxColumbus talk in 2011; we got some press, and we really started growing. We never really made money, but we were by-and-large covering our costs. In early 2012, Jim Sweeney, Executive Director of the Franklinton Development Association, gave me a phone call that started us on a long and exciting path to relocating to Franklinton, to occupying (and eventually buying) a beautiful 60,000 sf old manufacturing building, and to changing my life. But that's another post, and this one is long enough already.... :-)
Our home in Franklinton as of 2014... Watch for a new blog post about that amazing path soon!