Does the demise of TechShop (maybe) spell doom for makers?

The grass roots of the maker movement are green and flourishing.

TechShop stores were glorious playgrounds for people to make things, learn how to make things, and train for jobs. (Source: Arizona State University, Chandler)

TechShop, a franchise of fabrication storefronts, founded by Jim Newton and Ridge McGhee in 2006, which offers makers the tools and training they need to create DIY projects, build prototypes, or pursue their hobbies, announced in November 2017 that it was going into bankruptcy. Just as we barely digested that bit of news the company announced they had signed a memo of understanding with a buyer who planned to start up TechShop 2. That effort led by Dan Rasure, BHL Services of Minneapolis, now seems to have foundered as well.

The announcement came as a surprise to members and the November closure of TechShop sites around the world was abrupt. However, TechShop never really had an easy go of it even though it spawned several worthy products including the Square credit card swiper, the Oru foldable Kayak, and the Embrace, low-cost baby warmer distributed worldwide by GE Healthcare. After its much-celebrated founding with corporate support Autodesk, Lowe’s and grassroots crowdfunding support, the company found the search for investors to be difficult and the cost of sites with expensive equipment, material requirements, utility costs, etc. difficult to sustain. The first CEO Mark Hatch resigned to work on personal projects and was succeeded by Dan Woods who was a founder of Make Magazine and a member of the TechShop Board.

TechShop says that at their closing they had 9,000 members in the U.S. and had touched over 100,000 people since opening. The company claims its 10 U.S. stores could account for 148 startups per location and TechShop has spawned 1500 patents.

The Oru Kayak was prototyped at TechShop and funded through crowd sourcing. (Source: Oru)

The company shifted its market strategy to bring in more corporate money and partnerships and created a very active shop at Ford Motor Company where many patents were filed as a result. There were also alliances with the Office of Veteran Affairs and Darpa, but apparently the company never got the numbers to add up.

There’s still hope that Rasure and the TechShop organizers can forge a deal but it’s Newton who has put the brakes on for now. He has said that company lawyers warned them that the TechShop organization would be ultimately responsible for selling their assets to an organization capable of making a go of it. Newton said he wasn’t sure that the Rasure group could do that. In fact, Newton and Dan Woods both say they don’t believe the TechShop business model will work as is. Meanwhile, Rasure has declared himself still in the game and hoping for TechShop to come around. Adafruit is maintaining updates about the back and forth between the Rasure group and TechShop.

There are others who have faith in an idea like TechShop. Dr. Evan Malone, who founded NextFab in 2010 partly in emulation of TechWatch has written in Make Magazine that he still has hope for the future of maker spaces like TechShop. NextFab has locations in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. The group has also received corporate support including a partnership with GE, which searches out makers to partner with for future products.

MIT also supports a worldwide network of maker friendly organizations with Fab Labs, and Wikipedia reports that, as of December 2017, there are over 1205 Fab Labs all over the world—more spaces than Tech Shop ever had.

What do we think?

There may be fewer Maker Faires around the world, and Steam Punk seems to have run out of a bit of steam on the fashion front, but the urge to create is part of what makes us human. Beneath the idea of TechShops lay the big ambition to make production local again and there are many who are not willing to give up that dream. GE and Local Motors are working together in FirstBuild to give makers a space to try out ideas and pitch them for production.

As part of its farewell, TechShop published a PDF to extol its accomplishments. Most of, if not all, the successful products and start-ups that came out of TechShop, were crowd funded. Most of TechShop’s funding was crowd sourced. But, there has also been consistent support from corporate America and the government (at least from the previous administration). An ecosystem has been established and it’s meeting a desire that people have to work with their hands and create. We see that continuing to grow.