Fully embracing digital fabrication, the “maker movement,” and communities that build entrepreneurs, Harper College is jumping in head-first as it builds a new hub that promises to fuel area manufacturing.
The halls of Harper College are quiet, virtually empty. It’s summer break. A few people pass here and there. Some muffled sounds come from a classroom filled with adults.
Deep inside Building H, down a hall in Room 130, things are humming inside the new Makerspace and Entrepreneur Center (MEC). Brand-new laser cutters and 3-D printers are coming to life. Someone’s been co-working here all summer and hosting weekly seminars through her small business. Someone else has been dropping by for help as they prototype a new engine design.
A few months ago, a handful of Harper students were here seeking help before finals. One was working on a new invention related to sewing. One needed 3-D printed earrings for Harper’s fashion show. Another printed a fun pattern on fabric.
MEC manager Jeffrey Moy has mentored each one, providing insights where he can and connecting them with other experts when needed. Today, he’s sitting at a desk he’s dubbed “The Genius Bar.”
“This is where I meet all the geniuses,” he says. “People who want on-demand learning can come here and say, ‘I’m thinking about this,’ or ‘I need help on this.’ My response is always, ‘Let’s figure out how to make it work.’”
As its name implies, Harper’s new center is partly a makerspace lab for hobbyists and tinkerers who can build their ideas on high-tech equipment. But this is also part business incubator, where local entrepreneurs can gather the resources they need to advance their fledgling business idea. It’s also a place where beginners of all ages can try things in a safe, well-supported environment.
Places like this are frequently found around Chicago’s Loop, but out in the northwest suburbs, they’re less common, and almost nonexistent around Harper’s territory, which stretches from the Barrington area to far-west Des Plaines.
Such centers can attract entrepreneurs of many stripes, but area leaders are especially intrigued about MEC’s potential impact on the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing remains an important economic driver in this region, which for decades has been considered the “Golden Corridor” of manufacturing precisely because of its long history of making things. It’s their hope that MEC’s success will support a new era extending the region’s economic prosperity.
“Our goal is to create a community that provides people with a culture, community and programming to inspire them to learn new things and set big goals so they can become the best they can be,” says Moy. “We want to give them tools to empower them to innovate and to create the object of their dreams.”
What Exactly is a Makerspace?
The basic premise of a makerspace is that it’s a collaborative environment where people can learn to use technologies in the pursuit of their interest, hobby or passion. It can take many forms, and often feels like a community garage filled with tools. Makerspaces often integrate education in one form or another.
Chances are, your local library has a basic makerspace, with a tabletop 3-D printer, a small laser cutter, and maybe some sewing machines or soldering irons. Classes on engineering, robotics programming and other STEM-related experiences introduce people of all ages to the equipment inside.
“A lot of makerspaces, especially like the ones at the library, you can use them for playing around, but you can’t use them for commercial use,” says Moy. “You can’t run your business out of the library.”
Outside of libraries, some makerspaces embrace traditional fabrication, with woodworking or CNC equipment and old machine parts for people who want to tinker or pursue a project.
Harper’s space, on the other hand, is more of a “clean makerspace” that provides entry-level tools, commercial tools for low-volume production and access to third parties that can help with high-volume production.
MEC boasts, among other tools, a range of 3-D printing technologies, a high-powered laser cutter and a dye sublimation printer that imprints patterns on fabrics. Some “clean” spaces may focus exclusively on software experience, whereas Harper provides a more holistic experience aimed at the entrepreneurial type.
Moy is happy to meet people’s interests wherever they lie. He’s eager to meet people at any stage of their entrepreneurial journey, from an idea without a business plan to a full-fledged enterprise.
“Tinkering is how it all starts,” he says. “It’s starts with that idea or that thing you want to make. We’ll support the tinkerer 100 percent. It’s just that, when you are ready to move beyond that, we’re here for that, too. We’ll encourage you and help you to get off the ground.”
Harper’s 1,500-square-foot Innovation Center accommodates many interests. Along the outer walls are workstations for CAD programming as well as 3-D printing, textile and vinyl machines, and a small CNC machine as well. On the other side is a conference room, an office for private meetings and a laser studio. Around the middle are tables for co-working and parts assembly.
The room’s diversity of digital fabrication equipment, which includes 3-D printers at multiple price points, ensures that a wide variety of interests will be satisfied. The makerspace side, Moy believes, is like the tinder for new business ideas. But it’s the business development side that ignites a fire.
Building a Knowledge Base
Moy gets excited helping people to reach their potential. It’s something he noticed late in his corporate career, and something that’s driving his work with MEC’s business incubator.
“It’s all about people, when it comes down to it,” he says. “Some people are into material stuff, but it’s short-term and ultimately not gratifying. When you can see somebody’s eyes light up, it’s more inspirational for me. You can see the fire in their eyes.”
At its core, a business incubator provides a space to fully develop a business concept, whether it’s shoring up a business plan, nurturing a startup or growing an existing firm. Typically, incubators put the entrepreneur in contact with mentors and other resources to guide them through their journey.
“The main thing I want to start building is a vibrant and engaging community,” says Moy. “I want people to hang out here, learn and be excited and passionate. If I can help them find their inner passion, then I’ve done my job.”
Those who work with Harper’s entrepreneur center will have a number of resources, including Moy, who’s created several businesses in between corporate gigs. He’s joined by the Small Business Development Center, a partially government-funded organization that provides consultation, training and other resources on a number of topics, including business planning, marketing, accounting and legal matters.
Moy expects he’ll also be able to connect business owners with additional services not accessible on campus, including high-output manufacturers located nearby.
“A startup is not typically going to have access to a $450,000 printer,” says Moy. “So, we can help them connect with capabilities they can’t find anywhere else.”
This being a school, education is another access point to distinguish MEC from other incubators. All services are accessed by a center “membership,” what’s basically the equivalent of taking a continuing education class at Harper. That “class” is simply your access to an open lab, but it also grants access to the business faculty and other academic programs as needed.
“The goal here is that we’ll be starting with basic curriculum, but we’ll be taking people from zero up to mastery,” Moy says. “If they want to take a regular academic program, we have a path to get them there, too. You can go into our manufacturing program, engineering, or a number of other options in which you can learn.”
Moy envisions someday providing more short-term educational programs through which an entrepreneur can learn on their own time.
“I don’t have to sign up for a 16-week class to learn x,” he says. “I can learn x by taking a three-week class or something like that. Or, if I just want to learn about CAD or 3-D printing, I can go to a few of these one-evening classes for a fairly low expense and get a taste.”
The way he sees it, it’s a low-risk, low-barrier way to get a taste of knowledge before committing to something bigger. Coupling the college’s curriculum with on-demand learning, Moy says, is a ticket toward making this incubator more accessible to a wider variety of entrepreneurs.
“I want to make learning accessible, in quick wins, and inspirational,” he says. “And, fun. We want to make learning fun.”
Building a Vision
Moy figures entrepreneurialism must be in his blood. His grandfather owned a textile factory in China. He’s had family members own their own restaurants and businesses. Two of his three daughters have their own startup businesses – one in Chicago and another in Los Angeles.
Fresh out of college, Moy started a business with some friends.
“Even though I had business ideas and things I wanted to do, there was nothing like a business incubator,” he says. “I started a business right out of college, but after a little while I said, ‘I don’t know how to take this to the next level,’ so I went into industry. I figured I had learning to do before I could be successful.”
On and off through his career, he’s launched businesses, sold businesses and worked in the corporate realm, most recently as a technology executive for Samsung, with a focus on their startup divisions. He’s lived in San Jose and been part of the Silicon Valley scene, but he’s also worked in downtown Chicago where several business incubators are launching new tech-driven enterprises.
Four years after retiring from Samsung, Moy was splitting his time pursuing hobbies and consulting. He was ready for a change but wasn’t sure where to go.
“I was driving by Harper College and thinking, it would be really nice to have a makerspace or a business incubator on campus,” he says.
Moy hadn’t realized that, behind the scenes, forces were already coalescing around that very thing.
Years before, the nonprofit Golden Corridor Advanced Manufacturing Partnership had begun turning its attention toward makerspaces as a way of engaging young people in manufacturing-related careers. The group has long been an advocate for building industrial-sector employment around the northwest suburbs.
In March 2015, the group and several key partners – among them the villages of Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Elk Grove – hosted a public showing of “Maker: The Movie,” a documentary about makerspaces and a rising do-it-yourself “maker” culture.
Paul Heitman, business development director for Heitman Architects, attended the showing to see how it might help his family’s architectural firm, which specializes in industrial properties.
Heitman was captivated. He quickly joined up with the newly formed Golden Corridor Maker Space (GCMS) committee and began helping to introduce a makerspace to the region.
“Our mission has been to support makers along the Golden Corridor, along I-90 from Harper’s territory to Rockford,” says Heitman. “We support makers in the area by providing them with space, tools and expertise to create whatever visions for products or businesses they might have.”
About the same time GCMS was building interest, a Harper College professor was discovering her own interests in makerspaces. Marie Farber-Lapidus was at a conference for college entrepreneurship programs, seeking ideas she could work into Harper’s nascent curriculum. While she was there, she toured through a makerspace for artists in Sacramento, Calif.
“I just thought, how fun,” says Lapidus, Harper’s assistant professor and coordinator of the business administration and entrepreneurship programs. “It was fun. The environment was fun. Everything was really exciting. There was so much energy. It wasn’t a center where people just came and sat with their headphones and worked on their businesses in isolation, which is the very typical way that entrepreneurs work.”
An entrepreneur herself, Lapidus thought the concept could work well in the suburbs, especially given its correlation with high-tech manufacturing. It was fortuitous timing.
“When I came back from that conference, I said, ‘We really need to do a makerspace,’” she says. “About that same time, there was a huge billboard for Golden Corridor Maker Space.”
Once Harper came on board, plans quickly came together, first for an off-campus site and eventually for a spot on campus, in the manufacturing building.
About a year ago, while helping his daughter find a part-time job, Moy came across a job posting at Harper that fit exactly what he was hoping to create.
“We interviewed Jeff and he was just amazing,” Lapidus recalls. “He actually said, ‘I was just about to email you because I wanted to do this with Harper, and then I saw the posting for the job.’”
Adds Moy: “I think it must be fate.”
The Startup Phase
Since coming onboard in October, Jeff has overseen much of the final planning for the MEC, including remodeling the space, purchasing equipment and organizing programming. It’s currently enjoying a soft opening, in preparation for its official open in August when fall classes begin.
A special MakerFest on Oct. 5 will show off the many possibilities of MEC. Held from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., this interactive event is free and open to people of all ages, with special activities just for kids.
The grand opening is just part of the ramp-up. Both Moy and Lapidus believe this new operation is just like an entrepreneurial venture, and this is merely the prototype for things to come.
“We ultimately don’t know how it’s going to work out, and we ultimately need to make sure we’re flexible enough to pivot,” says Lapidus.
Still, there are a few certainties to plan on. For one, MEC has a guaranteed home inside the school’s planned University Center. Approved by referendum in 2018, the new center is part of a $28.5 million investment in a hub for economic development, business training, and workforce development partnerships with regional universities.
“My model is some of the big organizations like this in downtown Chicago,” says Moy. “I would like to have a larger space, more room, more tools and more space for people to run their businesses, and we’ll be able to scale up our program. That’s my vision. And then in less than five years, I’ll re-retire.”
Like any startup business, MEC’s initial funding comes from a combination of Harper funds, grants and fees collected through memberships and programming. Moy says the plan is to be self-sustaining.
Lapidus has been teasing her students and fellow faculty members with lots of sneak previews, and Moy has hosted several summer camps that put youngsters in personal contact with the makerspace’s technologies. There’s a growing interest, they agree.
“I’m hoping the excitement over the equipment and the things you can achieve and do in here with resources most people don’t have for themselves will inspire them,” says Lapidus. “They’ll say ‘I love this, I want to keep doing this, so how can I monetize this and be happy, instead of making it just a hobby?’”
Starting a Movement
Since teaming up with Harper, GCMS has also supported a new makerspace inside the Elk Grove Public Library. Both facilities, he believes, have the potential to create a “groundswell of community involvement and excitement,” not just in business development.
If these makerspaces are successful, there’s much more to be gained.
Heitman spends a lot of time talking with manufacturers, having helped to design showroom facilities along I-90, for many leading international manufacturing equipment suppliers, and a new air cargo center at Chicago Rockford International Airport, in Rockford. The common theme he hears is that it’s tough to find meet the growing labor demand in advanced manufacturing.
A combination of high-tech skills, with tools like CNC machines and robotics, is well-sought-after. Makerspaces represent one way to engage not only the next generation of workers but the ones who are most viable right now. And why not, in a region that has a long heritage in building things that keep the world moving?
“If you look at the maker movements in different areas around the United States, the East Coast has more of a design and graphic arts focus and the West Coast has more of a software and hardware community interest,” says Heitman. “In the Midwest and Chicago’s Golden Corridor, with our strong industrial economy, you should see a maker community that embraces manufacturing and drives innovation. GCMS is excited to help make the movement bigger here in the Midwest.”