Makerspaces: The 'Lego' Of Startups
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A retina specialist in Mumbai, Dr Rohit Modi made an ocular imaging device last year by reading few research papers online. While Dr Modi successfully made the device, he felt short on the image quality and optics of the device for which he sought technical help. He was suggested by his wife, who was in the same profession, to check out this space called Maker’s Asylum that looked like a mini factory with expensive machines like 3D printers and laser cutters to create different products.
“The portable fundus camera that I earlier made at home was a jugaad. I knew what improvement it needed, but that was quite technical. And that’s where Maker’s Asylum was helpful. From the prototype, I created a pretty functional device though we are still testing it,” says Dr Modi who joined the makerspace in August 2015.
Dr Modi believes that the cost of creating the device from other sources could have been more, as he has created his product at an affordable cost, he can now pass on the benefit to customers. “We are targeting to price it at one fourth of the market price,” says Dr Modi. Similar is the story of Abhishek Nandy who created a small matchbox-sized emotion detector from Kolkata-based makerspace MakersLoft. The detector reads facial expressions of the person driving the car. The device connects to the smartphone via an app and alerts people whose details are fed in the app about the driver’s mood to avoid any mishap. Nandy was the finalist of last year’s Innovate for Digital India Challenge by Intel and Department of Science and Technology in Ahmedabad. “We made this project for road safety. The best use cases for this would be companies like Ola and Uber. We will launch it next year because there are some modifications going on,” says Nandy who joined MakersLoft in October 2015.
The New Industrial Uprising
There are around 20 makerspaces existing in India that promote the concept of do-it-together rather than do-it-yourself (DIY) with likeminded tinkerers, artists, designers, innovators, hobbyists, students etc and not just engineers. The term was coined by USbased Dale Dougherty, Founder, Maker Media, in 2005 that publishes bimonthly magazine Make focusing on DIY projects.
However, the concept of a maker is not new by any means. It is just a term given to the inherent human urge to create things whether at home repairing TV, bicycles, at garage or basements doing experiments, after college projects, as school kids creating science projects or as craftsmen creating different traditional goods and craft products.
Cut to 2012-13, the rise of digital manufacturing along with a wave of makers or DIY enthusiasts stirred a quiet revolution of the maker movement or makerspace that allows any ordinary human being to work out on his idea along with other people for fun, knowledge or most importantly launch hardware start-ups. This even became the title of Chris Anderson’s (former editor of Wired magazine) book Makers: The New IndustrialRevolution published in 2012. Anderson underlined that this democratization of technology and tools available for all to create products collaboratively was the real revolution instead of mere developing such technology. “In a way this is a new industrial revolution as makerspaces are allowing the creation ofniche and customizable products. Previous industrial revolution allowed large-scale manufacturing but not much in terms of small scale manufacturing,” says Vaibhav Chhabra, Founder, Maker’s Asylum. Chhabra started Maker’s Asylum in November 2013 as a hobby space but when he realized of more people joining the space, he quit his job to shift from the garage where he was running this to a proper space.
However that doesn’t mean that one can commercialize his jugaad-based prototype right from the makerspace. “Jugaad is good as long as you are in the prototyping phase and that’s where makerspaces can help,” says Vineel Reddy Pindi, Founder and CEO, Collab House, a Hyderabad-based makerspace. Pindi earlier led community-building at Mozilla India.
Since makerspaces operate on knowledge sharing the mentorship and handholding aren’t readily available while these makerspaces conducts regular trainings, workshops and events around different concept. So, one has to figure out himself to make things happen. “Making hardware product will take time and has to be persistent for few years,” says Chhabra. Maker’s Asylum offers a network of over 50 mentors globally for makers.
Aligned with the Vision
There is probably no better time than now and country than India to launch a makerspace that aligns with three government’s initiatives of Make in India, Digital India and Skill India.
Workbench Projects, a Bengaluru-based makerspace accredited by Fab Lab (a network around 600 makerspaces globally by US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology) conducted a workshop during the recent Make in India week in Mumbai. “The workshop was for design platform, India Design Forum at Make in India week around design simplicity for India’s future smart cities. We are already in touch with the government for more support but as of now there is nothing concrete,” says Pavan Kumar, Founder and CEO, Workbench Projects.
Makerspaces expect the government to support them with funds similar to the US Government that offers grants to makerspaces there. “The government’s plans are completely aligned to us, especially Skill India, as we also help underprivileged kids as we have some boys who learnt carpentry part-time. I am trying to reach to the government to seek support,” says Meghna Bhutoria, Founder, MakersLoft, which is the first makerspace in east India.
Probably all of the makerspaces in India are bootstrapped as they are communityplatforms and not business plan-led businesses with growth targets that can attract private investors. “Makerspaces usually fall in the impact investing zone but impact investors relate impact to agro or rural-based businesses. So it may take a different approach for investors to look at makerspaces and that maturity can come by the end of 2016,” says Kumar.
By 2019, the numbers are expected to go up from 20 makerspaces to more than 70 across India that will add up to the hardware start-ups count. No doubt the larger companies will tap on the innovation just like they are tapping online through corporate incubators programs. The first one to latch on to the opportunity is the global chipmaker Intel that launched Intel India Maker Lab in August 2015 for around 10 selected start-ups and innovators. “Intel India is committed to accelerating Digital India and Design in India by invigorating innovation across the ecosystem. The Intel India Maker Lab will provide a facility to offer that support,” said Kumud Srinivasan, President, Intel India, during the launch. This is however different from typical makerspaces where anyone can walk in and hence in a way defeats the purpose of open innovation and co-creation for all.
This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (April 2016 Issue).