Categorized As:Business Growth
A Fab Model for Entrepreneurship
With Philly Tech Week underway, Josh Sevin explains why NextFab is a sign of good entrepreneurial things to come for our region.
I have to admit that I’ve remained a bit uncertain and skeptical about the “maker” movement. Maybe I’ve watched one too many Portlandia sketches lampooning craft culture, but I wasn’t sold on all the buzz around DIY fabrication – whether via new digital means like 3D printing or traditional methods like wood- or metal-working. Was this really part of a viable growth strategy for our region? It took a recent visit to NextFab in South Philadelphia for me to get it – and get really excited about it.
NextFab’s 21,000 square foot gym for innovators on Washington Avenue is unlike anything I’ve seen. Founder Evan Malone has built a dynamic maker space full of state-of-the-art manufacturing and fabrication equipment. There are 3D printers; laser engravers; water-jet cutters; machining and turning tools; table saws; arc and torch welding equipment; pick-and-place electronics; high-end design software and computer work stations … it just keeps going. With community memberships starting at $49 per month, NextFab members have access to this impressive array of advanced equipment along with technical training that otherwise might be out of reach. The result is a fascinating range of activities and users – from aspiring startups developing prototypes for new products to artists engaged in small-scale production to amateur hobbyists and weekend warriors working on whatever-they-please.
While NextFab is part of a growing number of high-tech hackerspaces that have popped up across the U.S. and abroad, its rapid expansion has still been notable. Within two years of its 2010 founding in a 4,000 square foot space at the University City Science Center, NextFab had grown enough to require the move to a converted iron workshop in South Philly. Membership now tops 500, there’s a 25-person full-time staff of engineering and design experts, and 1,500 people take advantage of NextFab classes annually.
Six startups are part of NextFab’s resident incubator program and one – smartphone DNA analysis firm Biomeme – has already graduated. Current incubator firm BioBots, which makes 3D bioprinters that use living cells as their building blocks, won accolades at South by Southwest last month and is in the hunt for first-round funding. An additional 12 startup companies work out of NextFab without formally participating in the incubator program. NextFab recently expanded to a 3,500 square foot satellite location at Impact Hub in Kensington with equipment for 3D printing, laser cutting, and design software, as well as a specialized jewelry lab.
While all of the equipment gets ample use, it’s the 3D printers that see the most activity. As 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – has become more sophisticated and the equipment has become more prevalent, this has been the true game-changer for the maker movement. In bringing prototyping costs and development time down dramatically, 3D printing has enabled more people with a vision for a product to test and experiment.
Everyone I know who has visited NextFab has come back abuzz. It’s not just the whiz-bang technology – though it’s virtually impossible to walk through the space without uttering a few involuntary “wow”s and “whoa”s. What’s special about what’s going on at NextFab is the community of entrepreneurs and innovators that has gravitated to the space. Area college students focused on material sciences and technology want to be there, and universities and professors are starting to use memberships. NextFab’s creative and skilled staff is securing contracts from major corporations like GE to work on prototyping and other projects. There’s even a local federal research center (that will go unnamed) using NextFab because it provides more flexibility than their facilities. Similar to what the Philadelphia Game Lab has become for video gaming, NextFab has become a local talent magnet and solution factory for creative makers and technologists.
When the Economy League released the World Class business growth agenda a couple of years ago, it emphasized strengthening entrepreneurial networks as a crucial component of spurring more robust startup growth in our region. What Malone and his team have built from the ground up at NextFab is as strong of an example of a rapidly forming and dynamic network of entrepreneurs as I’ve seen locally. It’s about drawing a creative, aspiring group of folks together in an open and collaborative community, providing them with the basic tools to work, and seeing what they make of it.
As our region gets serious about advancing a competitive manufacturing growth strategy, the talent and creativity on display at NextFab just might help point the way.