I’ve been asked often whether I thought any “real” innovation or “serious” companies could come out of the Maker Movement. The question tends to be posed by those with a belief that anything driven from a bunch of amateurs playing around with glue sticks and soldering irons is probably representative of just a crafting fad. I’m glad they ask, because the truth of the matter is that a number of important technologies have already come out of the Maker Movement. Here are five that were world changing.
James McKelvey, an IBM engineer by training, also happens to own a glass blowing shop in Kansas. Like many entrepreneurs, he’s known to enjoy a challenge, and is the kind of person who decided he wanted to learn the piano in his thirties and practiced every day for three years until he was, of course, distracted by flying planes.
Most importantly, McKelvey likes to make things -whether those “things” are blue glass bowls or epoxied prototypes. In fact, it was at his glass blowing shop where he found the inspiration to create a little credit card reader you may know as Square. McKelvey told this first-hand account to St. Louis Magazine:
“I was trying to sell a piece of glass. It was over the phone, to a lady in Panama. She was buying one of my glass bathroom faucets… She calls me; she’s going to spend three grand on this thing, and she wants to pay for it with an American Express card.” Until then, McKelvey had only accepted MasterCard or Visa for his glass, or checks or cash. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t take American Express. Don’t you have a Visa card?’ And she says ‘No,’ and then she goes through this thing about ‘Maybe my husband has one’ and ‘He’ll be back in a week.’ And I’m sitting here going, ‘God!’ because I’m about to lose the sale.”
McKelvey went on to manufacture the original prototype for Square at my TechShop … and subsequently, in 2012, Square did over $6 billion in credit card transactions and is currently valued at over $3 billion dollars.
Although Square may be the most well-known company to come out of TechShop, four more could rival its impact.
Take Phillip Hughes and Robert Lipp of Clustered Systems, who built a data cooling center platform that went on to earn 12-16% higher efficiency than the industry giants (including Sun Microsystems and IBM) during an 18-month evaluation. These cooling systems consume $250 billion in electricity a year – or, in other words – this 2-person startup has the potential to save the world $25 billion in annual electricity.
There was also Trevor Boswell, a D school project graduate from Stanford, who came into the TechShop to use our facilities for manufacturing. He was working for Peter Fryckman, a PHD and visionary who had just visited Ethiopia, where Fryckman saw small plot-farmers use child labor to irrigate their land. What they created was a field-ready drip irrigation tubing system complete with valve control – but it’s their proprietary system which is most important – because it eliminates over 12,000 parts per acre and costed 50% less than any other irrigation system on the market. Now, Fryckman and his team at Driptech are equipped to bring water to over 600 million farms in under developed countries.
Another great story from the Maker Movement addresses the 20 million babies who are born every year under-weight and premature. In fact, worldwide, over 4 million infants die within their first month of life. One of the biggest concerns is hypothermia and the regulation of body temperature. The team at Embrace created an incubator blanket at the TechShop in Menlo Park which does not require constant electricity, is portable, safe and costs 1% of a traditional incubator. This story is especially interesting to me because the core technology was upgraded through interactions with other makers at the Techshop – and I feel one of the best aspects of the hardware movement gaining traction is the ability to share technology and skills across people.
I’ll leave you with one more company called Solum. These guys set out to start working on a wholesale idea to affect how much nitrogen is in the ground – which is a serious economic and global agricultural issue due to a waste of toxic and expensive fertilizers. Their piece of hardware allows farmers to survey the acreage to find out how much fertilizer remains from the previous season so the famers know where and how much to apply the following season.
I have personally seen hundreds and hundreds of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projects launched, a dozen venture-backed companies, and hundreds of lives transformed in just our ten locations. But never has the “Maker Movement” carried so much excitement or momentum as it does today in 2013. Should this continue as forecasted, the world stands to be a very different place at the hands of these amateurs and indie engineers.