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December 16, 2013

Makerspace movement spreads across Connecticut

Photos | Matt Pilon Tom Freund, founder of a West Hartford startup company called DigySol, explained his equipment-sensor technology. Looking on (in the black hat) is MakeHartford founder Steve Yanicke.
Photo | Matt Pilon Tom Drudge, a database administrator by trade, presents a controller he is working on to open and close window blinds using a mobile app. Looking on is MakeHartford co-founder David Rhodes.
Gady Weiner and his daughter Ella, 9, showed off some of their “steampunk” gear at a MakeHartford meeting.

Database administrator Thomas Drudge stood inside a Hartford mill building one night last month presenting an electronic controller he's developing to remotely open and close window blinds in his house using a mobile phone app.

The 25 others in the room — a mixture of techies, artists and others who Drudge, a recent California transplant, had never met before — called out suggestions for how he might improve his novel device.

Try upping the motor's voltage, one person said. Add switches to the pull string so the controller knows the exact position of the blinds, another observer called out.

One man left the room, returned, and handed Drudge two small objects.

“Two limit switches!” he announced.

Welcome to the makerspace movement.

Fueled by a love of technology, collaboration, design and just simply making things, so-called makerspaces and hackerspaces have cropped up across Connecticut in recent years — in Manchester, Watertown, Meriden, New Haven, Danbury and most recently, Hartford.

The groups all are a bit different, but most focus on some combination of computer networking and programming, robotics, metalwork, woodwork and electronics.

They share a common ethos that Bill Saturno, founder of CT Hackerspace in Watertown, summed up as “learn, make, share.” “Our culture is getting away from doing a lot of hands-on things,” said Saturno, who has an engineering background and works as an account rep for a distributor of Boars Head Brand Provisions. “What I see is, even though our culture has gotten away from that, there's still a yearning for that creativity for wanting to build things.”

Steve Yanicke, founder of Hartford web design firm Hatters Workshop and a software engineer at an area insurance company, spearheaded the creation of MakeHartford.

The group, which has arranged meetings around the city for the past year using the social website, signed a lease last month for 1,800 square feet of space on Arbor Street.

Yanicke said makerspaces are akin to a gym membership for artistic and technology creative types.

“People show what they're working on, and we sort of group think and problem solve,” he said. “For me, it's exciting because you can just ask questions and get answers.”

It's not clear yet what impact makerspaces will have on Connecticut's entrepreneurial economy, which the state is trying to develop through $10 million in grants and support for tech startups.

For many makers, the groups are simply a fun way to pursue their interests and hobbies, said Saturno, who also works with Danbury Hackerspace and has offered advice to MakeHartford and other groups about how to get started.

“The majority of our members have a technical background, but they have a creative side to them,” Saturno said. “It's an itch that needs scratching.”

Drudge, the man with the window-blinds controller, said he sees his device as a hobby project.

That's not to say there aren't makers who want to see their projects earn money down the road.

Saturno noted that MakerBot, a New York-based consumer 3-D printer manufacturer that was acquired by Stratasys for $403 million earlier this year, was developed in a hackerspace in New York City.

Ernest St. Louis, an electronics designer from Hebron who attended the MakeHartford “show and tell” last month, where makers displayed projects ranging from laser-etched art to homemade sci-fi ray guns and complex systems-monitoring software, said those success stories aren't lost on Connecticut makers.

“The economic downturn displaced a lot of tech people, so they hired themselves,” St. Louis said.

He hopes makerspaces, coupled with the advent of Internet crowdfunding, can help sustain basement and garage tinkerers and inventors who have seen federal grants wane over the past few decades.

If MakeHartford is to help birth a start-up tech company, smart money would be on DigySol. Tom Freund, a former Pratt & Whitney engineer who has been consulting for the past decade, founded the company out of his West Hartford home.

His product is a combination of hardware and software that networks with industrial equipment and infrastructure to monitor early warning signs of failure.

He wants to test his product, which he hopes to launch in 2014, in MakeHartford's Arbor Street space. Freund said he is interested in having a place to discuss and work on his technology with those who understand it.

“I find that very useful,” Freund said. “I feel it gives me flexibility and the right contacts.”

As the maker movement grows in Connecticut, some hope there might be a way to focus those efforts.

Saturno said he's been discussing the creation of a maker association in Connecticut, through which the various groups could share equipment and knowledge, collaborate on events, and maybe even pursue state funding to provide workforce and technology training.

“I'm trying to tie the hackerspace movement in with Connecticut's innovation economy,” Saturno said. “So far the response has been very positive.”

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