Cleveland Could Use a TechShop ‘Birthing Room’

By J.F. McKenna

Necessity will forever remain the mother of invention, with the phrase “What this world needs…” signaling the start of gestation. Accelerating this birth rate is a new midwife in the neighborhood—the high-tech workshop for hire.

Think Menlo Park, Edison’s celebrated idea hatchery in New Jersey, with contemporary manufacturing tools and membership privileges. That’s TechShop, a California-based franchise that aims to serve the guy who has outgrown building bird houses as well as the restless would-be inventor who needs a milling machine to test out his idea. Six years after the business started in another Menlo Park, TechShops are beginning to appear across the country.   

The City of Pittsburgh, Cleveland’s nearby mirror municipality, is expected to open its doors to a TechShop sometime this year. Before you allow your Browns loyalty to dismiss TechShop Pittsburgh as a hothouse for hobbyists, consider the fact that the Department of Defense is sinking more than several million dollars into the concept.

“Daytime hours at the Pittsburgh TechShop will see members—there are currently more than 3,300 at five locations nationwide—building everything from iPad docks to cellos to bamboo bikes,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday. “After hours, as part of the Defense Department’s investment, employees of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency will be able to use certain TechShop facilities to work on the development of technology that could rapidly shift between producing parts for ground vehicles, airplanes and helicopters. The TechShop investment is part of a larger DARPA initiative.”

Creating such open platforms for innovations—whether the innovations are for the public or the private sector—is a welcome step in the entrepreneurial direction. No longer does a great idea remain only that because the man with an idea is the man without access to the right equipment. (Just think how quickly common access to the Internet has transformed the world’s notion that “ink by the barrel” is the sole avenue to influencing public opinion.)

Offering individual memberships of $1,200 annually, TechShop celebrates as it practices free enterprise and what we nostalgically refer to as “good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.” As TechShop’s own Web site proclaims, “Anyone can take classes at TechShop. Taking a class is a great way for you to pick up new skills and experience the many ways a TechShop membership will empower you first hand.”

Well-funded business incubators and so-called entrepreneurial clusters may have their place, certainly. But delivering the next great product is typically a “one-off process” and an individual experience. Considering that, I often think of how Akron’s Lee and Debby Eisinger brought Home Senser to market.

HomeSenser is a device designed to shut off a stove when it is left unattended too long. Lee is president of the Akron Metal Etching Company (AME), a design house that serves the rubber and plastic industries. He originally fashioned his marvel of practical engineering solely to help his mother, an Alzheimer’s sufferer who wanted to stay in her own home as long as possible. In time, Eisinger and his family decided that this patented tool should be shared with a market that includes aging adults and latchkey kids.

It didn’t take long for wife Debby, now president and majority owner of HomeSense Enterprises, to introduce the first generation of the product to such customers as the Columbus YWCA, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and Alpha Phi Alpha Homes of Akron. Today, HomeSensers can be found in 25 states and Puerto Rico.

“Most fires that take place in the home start in the kitchen, and most are caused by unattended cooking,” Debby told me during our first visit in 2005. Pleased by the peace of mind and the sense of safety the HomeSenser offered, the Eisingers soon looked to similar iterations for the gas stove and 120-volt appliances such as the coffeepot and the space heater. (For more on Akron’s first family of entrepreneurs, see “Akron Lays Claim to a One-Family‘Entrepreneurs’ Colony,’” CBR, August 11, 2011 — . )

Tomorrow’s Eisingers are likely harboring the next HomeSensers. They just don’t have the same tools at hand to fashion and refine their products for the marketplace. TechShop could be the perfect catalyst for creating their innovations.

“If you give the creative class access to the tools of the industrial revolution for the first time in all of human history, they should be able to change the world,” TechShop CEO Mark Hatch tells the Pittsburgh daily. Absolutely, Mr. Hatch.

The City of Cleveland, as well as the rest of northeast Ohio, should follow the lead of cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit. Get out the welcome mat for TechShop.

If the Eisingers are any indication, the region already has plenty of innovators with ideas waiting to be born.

J.F. McKenna is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor and associate publisher of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. Reach him at .



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