Grassroots Manufacturing Renaissance Spurs Entrepreneurship

manufacturingMainstream tech startups have been vital to jumpstarting new firm innovation in America. Policymakers are increasingly interested in whether this will drive similar innovation in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Among the most visible new movements of late is the maker movement, a bottom-up force representing the latest inspiration for students to pursue learning and applying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

While most people have been busy adjusting education to the digital economy, some refuse to discard manufacturing as an economic engine and a skill – all without turning a blind eye to the global competitive landscape. The idea from its most vocal advocates in the United States –
Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty – was to resuscitate the innovative and creative spirit that drives competitiveness in making solutions.

Through Maker Faire and “Makeathon” events, as well as burgeoning “makerspaces,” the maker movement soon found its way into the youth culture in the United States. Today’s entrepreneurial makers are a growing army of everyday citizens who are using new tools and techniques to launch businesses. They are doing so by applying STEM knowledge to manufacturing, and capitalizing on technological advances, such as CNC routers, and other desktop machine tools.

You have probably seen many such startups on platforms like Etsy, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo, where maker entrepreneurs seek support, such as access to startup funding, mentoring and general business advice. While technological tools are helping “DIY” hobbyists and tinkerers scale their production and innovative capacity, growing maker businesses also rely on networks that can help them access manufacturers with the right expertise, gain a foothold on distribution channels, and mentors that will guide them on patenting and IP issues. 

Many federal policymakers caught a glimpse of the maker movement when President Barack Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire last June. At the event, the President called on students to be proud of America as a nation of maker entrepreneurs.

Like entrepreneurs in other fields, makers are inspired by the dual and reinforcing opportunities to do well and do good by inventing concepts or re-inventing products to make them safer, greener, more affordable, or simply better. In fact, makers are found across various industries well beyond craft making. Maker nurses, for example, have been busy prototyping new tools that will aid in patient care, such as San Francisco’s Jane Chen who developed Embrace, a baby incubator at 1 percent of the price of the existing technology. Her incubator does not require electricity, opening the potential to save prematurely born babies in in remote villages and rural areas.

Makers in education are making great strides to expand the access and quality of education, like Manu Prakash, of Palo Alto, California, and his $5 chemistry set. Inspired by his experience growing up in India, he has been working to bring affordable scientific tools to schoolchildren and laboratories in every corner of the globe. The chemistry set he created allows students to explore important issues like water quality and contamination.

At the local level, as Jason Wiens recently reported, understanding what maker entrepreneurs need at different stages is at the top of mayors’ minds, as expressed at the recent Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship in Louisville, Kentucky.

At the federal level, the focus has been on the learning process. Over the summer, President Obama announced new commitments to increase the number of Americans that have a chance to learn how to they too can have a chance to bring their ideas to market by becoming maker entrepreneurs.

Those initiatives included a commitment from the Department of Education to create more Makerspaces; encourage more educators in teaching Making; and launch various programs that allow students to access the tools and mentors necessary to help them innovate. Five other federal agencies (USPTO, SBA, HHS, NSF, DOE), along with more than 150 colleges and universities, more than 130 libraries, and major companies like Intel, Disney, and Lego have made similar commitments.

Within the past few months, new makerspaces have been opened at large schools like the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, the University of Maryland, the University of Utah, Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska for entrepreneurs can build and test their own products.

State governments are also mobilizing resources. As reported earlier on PDE, a new state grant in Wisconsin will start a blueprint “Community Creative Space” for communities throughout the state. New Jersey has in turn issued grants to 14 libraries across the state to create space for makers.

The education value of the maker renaissance, however, is still undervalued. While solid research is not yet available, like me, you may have witnessed first-hand how the maker movement fuels the imagination of our youth, instills interest in turning ideas into solutions, and gives them a chance to apply scientific skills well before they discard STEM fields in their future career choices. It is the type of hands-on learning that promotes skills such as creativity, experimentation, and self-expression that can also serve as a path to train the entrepreneurs of the future, regardless of the field they end up choosing. That is so for those students lucky to have teachers who truly bring the maker mentality to life in their STEM classrooms and have access to enabling technology.

As space make-over measures gain visibility, a key question to ask on Capitol Hill and in the Department of Education is: are we doing enough to leverage this phenomenon as an entrepreneurship training method now that communities are ready to support youth of all backgrounds to experience making opportunities? Tech startups have helped map a cultural path for America’s makers. It is now upon the rest of us to engage more actors in the effort to scale the impact of this as part of restoring the American economy.

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