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St. Louis Looks To Land TechShop

(Bart Nagel)

Have an idea but no tools to develop it?

There may soon be a place in St. Louis where entrepreneurs and hobbyists can turn their plans into reality.

TechShop, a company already in seven U.S. cities, provides space, industrial equipment and classes for both amateur and professional inventors.

CEO Mark Hatch said St. Louis has the right elements for the company, including a robust start-up scene.

Related Event: TechShop Presentation, February 27 from 2-4 p.m. at Cortex 1 Building, 4320 Forest Park Ave.

"It’s got a large creative class," Hatch said in a phone interview. "It’s got a large concentration of people. It’s got good universities and good potential partners like Cortex and Boeing, or Purina or other manufacturers."

Cortex, St. Louis’ technology district, is working with TechShop to raise $3 million in capital and obtain 1,000 membership commitments that Techshop needs to open its doors. The proposed space for Techshop is an existing building at Boyle and Forest Park Avenues.

Cortex President and CEO Dennis Lower said an individual membership would cost about $1,300 a year. There's also an option for month-to-month membership.  In return, TechShop provides access to industrial tools that used to be only available to a few.

"Maybe a student had access to a maker’s workshop, but upon graduation or at the end of that course, they don’t have access," Lower said. "TechShop will be open access to the public, to corporations through a membership basis, just like a gym would be."

The payoff for Cortex and St. Louis is innovation and the possible creation of new companies. For instance, St. Louisan Jim McKelvey used a TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif. to create the prototype for Square, the technology that enables tablets and smartphones to accept debit and credit cards.

"So TechShop is a vital component for what we’re trying to establish in Cortex, which is this innovation, entrepreneurial hub for the region," Lower said.

TechShop has three locations in California, including its first shop in Menlo Park which opened in 2006. Since then the company has partnered with corporations, the government and universities to open locations in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Austin, Texas, Chandler, Ariz. and one that will soon open in the Washington, D.C. area.

The shops include welding equipment, industrial sewing machines, woodworking equipment, laser cutters, CNC mills and routers, and 3D printers, among other things.

Hatch, who became TechShop’s CEO in 2007, said giving people access to that kind of hardware dramatically cuts the cost of developing products.

"We typically save our entrepreneurs 97 percent of their development cost. So, if the idea would have cost $50,000 historically, it now costs $500 to $5,000," he said. "What that does is frees up the creativity and innovation in a city that you’ve just never seen in another context, except software."

The company has about one-third of the membership commitments and half of the start-up capital needed for the site. Lower said he’s confident the rest will be secured by the end of the month.

To that end, Cortex, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the St. Louis Regional Chamber are sponsoring a presentation about TechShop. It will be held February 27 from 2-4 p.m. at Cortex 1 Building, 4320 Forest Park Ave.

TechShop did close one of its locations last year. The Raleigh-Durham, N.C. location was independently owned and was acquired by TechShop in 2011. The company said despite investments the location did not prove profitable.

But Hatch, who is also the author of "The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers," said there is no danger of the movement coming to an end.

"It’s a fundamental human desire, making things and getting your hands dirty and producing things is ingrained in who we are as humans. It’s part of the genome," Hatch said. "We just haven’t had access to the systems and the tools in this way, ever." 

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.