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Monday, March 4, 2024

North Carolina’s subculture of tinkerers, hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts finds a home in nonprofit makerspaces

A 3D-printed prosthetic hand, a light-up hula hoop, a breathing treatment device, brewery tap handles, embroidery display frames and resin pours amassing 2.5 million TikTok followers — these are some of the products of North Carolina’s makerspace scene.

The concept of makerspaces — also known as “hackerspaces” — isn’t exactly new, historically applied in public libraries or universities. In recent years, dedicated hubs for do-it-yourself enthusiasts and artists have popped up nationwide, often operating as volunteer-run nonprofits relying on member dues, grants and corporate sponsorships. North Carolina’s makerspaces are lined with laser cutters, 3D printers, pottery and fiber arts studios — resources that would cost thousands of dollars to purchase. 

More important than fancy equipment, makerspace leaders say, is the diversity in backgrounds their makers bring to the dynamic. “Someone who does a fiber craft like knitting and someone who does electronics probably don’t understand each other’s crafts, but if you get them talking they’ll always find some way to relate,” says Zak Smolen, president of Asheville Makers, a 950-square-foot downtown-area spot where 25 members pay $50 monthly to use the space and tools.

A few years ago Smolen wanted to 3D-model an engagement ring, but had a shortfall in experience. Another member needed different help for their project. “We both traded knowledge, him helping me with 3D design and me helping him with electrical circuit design, and together both learned new skills from the experience and completed our projects,” says Smolen.

Camaraderie among makers strengthens the whole. While definitions vary on what being “a maker” means, North Carolina’s makerspaces say the mindset of their diverse and interdisciplinary crowd defines them better than a formal title. 

“We often see collaborations among people that wouldn’t have met outside of the makerspace,” says Elaine Lamson, executive director of Winston-Salem’s 7,200-square-foot Mixxer Community Makerspace. Since opening in 2018, the makerspace has attracted 177 members and 2,500-plus people who create items from art to furniture, jewelry to complex machines. 

“Some create for personal use, some for profit, as a learning exercise or simply a creative outlet,” says Lamson. “The thing all of those makers have in common is a need for support. That support is what makers often need to be successful, and is central to the service Mixxer provides.” 

Countless members of North Carolina makerspaces have become small businesses, including more than 20 entrepreneurs who have started a business idea at Mixxer. Others have created nearly a dozen public art installations. Some have participated in entrepreneurial programs at Winston-Salem’s Center for Creative Economy and the Flywheel coworking and innovation group. Smoodi, which relocated from Boston to the Triad, maintains its fleet of self-service smoothie machines at Mixxer. 

In the pandemic, Wake Forest Innovations engineers used Mixxer’s laser cutter to prototype personal protection equipment for medical procedures. And a team of six, comprising a doctor and members experienced in fabrication and electronics, collaborated on a breathing treatment device.

Forge Greensboro offers tools and space for people to create a wide variety of products.

DIY LESS EXPENSIVE

Access to tools draws makers in, and organizers factor members’ needs into their budgets, which range from $25,000 at Asheville Makers to $500,000 at spaces in Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

Durham’s 2,600-square-foot Splat Space ensures its 70 members have the tools required for whatever project they’re working on. “A number of our members don’t have the space at home to own a large array of tools or even to work on projects,” says Splat Space board President Blake McNeill, a database engineer at Morrisville-based e-commerce firm ChannelAdvisor. “When we consider how to use our budget, we prioritize adding value for our members with resources and equipment that are too large, expensive or complex for most people to have at home.” 

Full membership at Splat Space costs $60 per month, with discounts for students. Reflecting the underlying life science- and technology-rich economy of the Research Triangle Park region, three groups in Splat Space are working on projects for startups in electronics and biotechnology.

SMALL BUSINESS START

The Triad’s 270-member Forge Greensboro expanded in 2021 to fill the entire building at West Lewis Street, adding around 3,000 square feet to sublet private workspaces and a modular classroom primarily for youth programming. That expansion is home to an incubator-style program called Maker Studios.

The first tenant was 3D Upfitters, started years ago when entrepreneur Michael Czeiszperger joined the Forge and prototyped an enclosure to improve air and print quality in 3D printers. He found employees there trained in manufacturing equipment and ran pressure tests on the heavily-used 3D printers. Czeiszperger eventually sublet 450 square feet, moving logistics, storage and design out of his home. 3D Upfitters then grew its monthly sales and secured its own equipment and production facility once its year-long lease ended. 

MakerSpace Charlotte, too, has seen plenty of inventions spin into larger projects. At 21,000 square feet with 350 members, it’s one of the state’s largest makerspaces. Executive Director Steven Gray says about a dozen businesses rent studio space, with another 20 using the space to supplement their other operations. 

One can get a 10-by-10 studio for $300 per month or a 5-by-10
option for $175, along with access to MakerSpace Charlotte’s equipment stockpile. This price point appeals to entrepreneurs who want to dip their toes into their venture before committing. 

“Oftentimes it takes an entrepreneur two or three failed attempts at a business before they finally find a formula that works,” Gray says. “With our very low cost of entry, more people can afford to take the third bite of the apple.”

VARIED BUSINESS MODELS

Makerspaces are similar to the coworking space concept, but with more varied, niche business models. Some are backed by grants: Several organizations support Forge Greensboro with at least $10,000 each via sponsorship or grant funding, including Lincoln Financial Foundation and Triad-based Cemala Foundation, Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation, legal-services technology firm TCDI and office rental agency AZ Development. It recently added the National Science Foundation and Greensboro-based website designer Zibster as sponsors.

Mixxer likens its business model to a YMCA membership, paired with classes and summer youth programs. About 60% of its income comes from class revenue and membership fees, at $65 per month for individuals, $99 for families and $45 for students. The rest is from individual donors and grants through the Winston-Salem Foundation, the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, Duke Energy Foundation, Piedmont Federal Savings Bank, Corning Incorporated Foundation and others.

MakerSpace Charlotte has yet to receive any grant funding. “We don’t want to be dependent upon grants to keep the lights on, hence our focus on being self-sustaining,” says Gray. “We’ve heard horror stories about nonprofits that didn’t have their grants renewed.” MakerSpace Charlotte has an annual income of  about $275,000 a year, mostly from $50 monthly member dues and studio space rentals.

Volunteer staffing helps some makerspaces keep costs low for members, and some have struck favorable deals with their landlords. Avi Silverman, of Asheville Makers, was around when it started in 2013 as a social group that would meet at a pizza place and “nerd out” about projects. Since then, it has moved twice with its landlords allowing the group to avoid raising a large amount of capital. 

The rent payment model at its first building was pay-what-you-can, allowing Asheville Makers to gain interest and members without worrying about short-term survival. “We were then able to work out a deal with our current landlord who allowed us to start paying at half-rent and ramp up payments over our first six months of occupancy, giving us enough time to grow our membership to keep up,” Silverman said. 

Finding space to accommodate growth remains a challenge. Splat Space formed a members’ committee to scout locations larger than its current digs in the Old Five Points area near downtown Durham. “We’re seeing old buildings being torn down and townhomes and apartments being put into their place at an astounding rate,” McNeill says. “Our location will not be immune to this change, and we believe that needing to move due to redevelopment is a question of when, not if.” 

MakerSpace Charlotte’s biggest challenge is finding its next space, as its lease nears an end in mid-2024. Its current rate is likely to double from the contract signed in 2019.  Gray fears being stuck in a small space for several years because of costs. “We’ve been fortunate to find lease situations that allowed us to grow in physical size as our income increased,” he says. “With the run-up in real estate prices in Charlotte and the concomitant increase in lease rates, it may be very challenging to find a situation where we can repeat the ‘lease more than we can afford and then expand’ combo.”

North Carolina makerspace projects and posts on Instagram.
@forgegreensboro @splatspace @mixxercommunitymakerspace @makerspacecharlotte

IMPRESSING OUTSIDERS

Perhaps an unexpected economic impact is that makerspaces can be unofficial site-selection testaments to outside businesses looking to relocate to North Carolina. About a dozen times over the past year, Gray has seen visitors considering moving to Charlotte cite the makerspace’s offerings as a significant deciding factor. Splat Space has also been contacted several times by out-of-state startups interested in having their staff use its facilities. 

“We take this as a sign that we and the broader network of makerspaces are increasing in importance as a direct resource for day-to-day operations of young companies as they consider moving to North Carolina, on top of the work we already do to build up the underlying tech community here,” McNeill says. 

Offsetting the usual profit motive characterized by real estate landlords, nonprofit makerspaces have room to pursue dreams at a more sustainable timetable. For MakerSpace Charlotte, that means establishing a “demo” to build credibility as a cultural hub. In orientations, Gray tells people he’s working to combine three ideas: The shared tools and community of a makerspace with Burning Man’s human creativity and Disney’s curb appeal.

“It’s kind of ridiculous, I know, but I want the makerspace to be the cultural destination in Charlotte. We’re not there yet, but that’s the larger goal,” he says. “If you get the artist, you get everything else. We want to be a place where artists say, ‘of all the places I can go to set up shop in Charlotte, I want to be at the makerspace.’” 

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