September 12, 2016

Couple aims to build CT’s largest makerspace

HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
HBJ PHOTO | Matt Pilon
Bryan Patton and his wife Devra Sisitsky show off a design concept of their planned makerspace for Hartford’s Colt Armory complex.
PHOTO | Contributed
Bryan Patton shown at a maker fair last year held at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, where he organized an interactive coding demonstration.

An Avon couple hopes to kick Connecticut's burgeoning "makerspace" movement up a few notches, and they may have the funding to do it.

Bryan Patton and his wife Devra Sisitsky, co-founders of an effort to build in Hartford what would be the state's largest makerspace, said they've raised approximately $1.3 million and are aiming to double that amount in the months ahead to get the space up and running.

Patton owns a home construction business and has been a self-described hobbyist and tinkerer for much of his life. Sisitsky has started several companies over the years and worked in health insurance and consulting.

Makerspace is a broad term that generally describes a communal space where a group of collaborators or "makers" work on projects in a variety of mediums, from woodworking and metalworking to computer coding and electronics. Connecticut has at least six makerspaces — including one already in Hartford — stretching from New London to Norwalk, and advocates say they could boost Connecticut's innovation economy and talent pool.

Patton and Sisitsky are working to open their makerspace at the Colt Armory complex, though they have not yet signed a lease.

They're hoping to make a funding announcement for their proposed MakerSpace CT at a Nov. 17 maker conference they've helped organize at the University of Hartford. The conference has booked Dale Dougherty, who founded MAKE: Magazine and licenses the "maker faire" brand to events around the country.

The couple hopes the summit will build buzz for MakerSpace CT and also attract the attention of Connecticut officials and potential sponsors/investors.

Acquiring machinery and equipment for the space is expected to cost approximately $750,000, Patton said, and there would also be renovation and rent costs.

They envision a makerspace with CNC machines, lathes, a sand-blasting booth, water-jet cutting machine, metal-fabrication area, design software and monitors, 3D printers and a variety of other equipment that could be used by hobbyists and professionals alike, for a monthly fee. They hope to eventually amass 400 members.

Several entities have offered potential financial support to MakerSpace CT, some of which will depend on securing matching donations. They include a private family foundation created earlier this year by Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge and Tolland-based CNC Software Inc., maker of the manufacturing-design software, Mastercam.

JCJ Architecture President Peter Stevens has also offered to help pull together a group of investors. Stevens said he believes the proposed makerspace fits into JCJ's commitment to making Coltsville a destination for mixed-use development.

"Having Makerspace CT as part of Coltsville would be a major community asset and be very fitting given the long history that the Coltville complex has had in providing ingenuity to the region," Stevens said.

The Rutledge Family Foundation, CNC Software and JCJ are all listed as sponsors of the New England Maker Summit, as are UHart, the Children's Museum in West Hartford and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) in East Hartford.

An attempt to reach a representative of the Rutledge Family Foundation through a Charter spokesman was unsuccessful.

Grand plans

Though Patton has long been what many would consider to be a maker, he and his wife said they only became aware of the maker movement and makerspaces several years ago.

Since then, they've incorporated and received nonprofit status for MakerSpace CT, and visited makerspaces and events in California, New York City and Pittsburgh.

Should MakerSpace CT become a reality, Patton and Sisitsky said they aim to partner with schools and universities, create a skills program for military veterans, and offer a place for hobbyists, students, entrepreneurs and companies to test their ideas and learn new skills.

Patton recalls being bored as a teenager in his high school classes, preferring hands-on activities like working on his truck.

"I wish there had been maker stuff going on when I was a kid," Patton said.

Many makers believe makerspaces can be a catalyst for getting young people interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning.

"We need to go from a mindset of conspicuous consumption to one of creation and innovation," Sisitsky said.

President Barack Obama seems to agree. His administration has lent its support to the maker movement, hosting annual maker events at the White House since 2014 and offering funding and support to makerspaces through the U.S. Small Business Administration and other agencies.

In August, Patton was invited to a White House gathering of nearly 200 maker organizations from across the country, with discussions centered around how makers can present a more unified voice in Washington, D.C.

Patton said a large makerspace could also serve as a feeder into CCAT's more advanced programs, which help manufacturers test new products and designs.

Paul Striebel, CCAT's entrepreneurial services specialist, agreed a large makerspace could benefit CCAT and vice versa.

"Any kind of major space would complement what we do over here," Striebel said.

Maker friction?

MakerSpace CT wouldn't be the first makerspace in Hartford. The city has had a nonprofit, volunteer-run makerspace since 2013, called MakeHartford.

MakeHartford has an approximately 1,800-square-foot space on Arbor Street, and won a contract in 2015 from the state-funded CTNext program to provide entrepreneurial services, joining business incubators, coworking spaces, consultants and other entities around the state. It has approximately 30 members, who take turns staffing the space most days of the week.

Would a much larger makerspace less than three miles away be a problem for MakeHartford?

The organization's co-founder Steve Yanicke said he is aware of the potential competition and has unsuccessfully tried to convince them to partner with his organization to grow it to a larger size.

"We have similar visions and are working towards the same goal," Yanicke said.

Yanicke said there may not be a need for MakeHartford to remain open if MakerSpace CT gets funded.

"Whoever has the larger space with the most tools would be the best option for members and our community," Yanicke said.

Asked about MakeHartford, Patton said he thinks it would be too difficult to grow out a smaller space. He and his wife are also attached to the historical significance the Colt building played in the Industrial Revolution, and see modern-day parallels with the maker movement.

Sisitsky said she hopes to speak more with MakeHartford about how they can work together. "We all want to do what's best for making in Hartford," she said.

But the two entities may remain at odds.

Each is participating in Hartford-centric talks about applying for a $5 million annual pool of funding from CTNext's Innovation Places program, created by the legislature earlier this summer.

Innovation places are meant to be geographic zones that support and draw entrepreneurs and talent. While much will be left to the interpretation of the applicants and the judgment of CTNext's board of directors, the hubs are meant to contain anchor institutions, companies and recreational spaces near startup and growth businesses and public transit, with local zoning laws allowing for mixed-use development and the promotion of foot traffic.

Numerous communities have been conducting similar talks and are expected to apply for a preliminary planning grant this month.

"It will be competitive," said Glendowlyn Thames, director of CTNext and Connecticut Innovations' director of small business innovation.

Those communities awarded initial funding by CTNext will develop more detailed plans regarding ways they can work with area institutions, nonprofits and companies to elevate their respective entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Depending on the plans ultimately submitted and selected, universities, incubators, makerspaces and other entities could receive funding next summer.

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