Where do-it-yourself inventors do their R&D;

Special to The Times

He works in Silicon Valley, the land of start-ups founded in garages. But a garage wouldn't suffice for what Chris Tacklind wanted to invent.

He knew that crafting the inexpensive, compact laser pointer for quadriplegics he dreamed up would require some seriously high-tech tools that he didn't own.

So to make his brainchild, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. engineer turned to an unusual business: TechShop, a fully equipped community workshop that is changing the way inventors work.

There he shaped a plastic casing using a 3-D printer that costs tens of thousands of dollars and assembled the guts of his device using the shop's electronic equipment. Today, his laser pointer is making its way to market.

"If you wanted to build this yourself, it would be impossible," Tacklind said. "As an individual, you just can't assemble this kind of equipment."

By offering affordable access to otherwise out-of-reach tools, TechShop is lowering start-up costs and providing a commons for previously isolated minds. It's a place where "makers" -- as members of the do-it-yourself movement are known -- can make such products as water-cooled stacks of computer servers and remote-controlled robots that do videoconferencing.

It's doing for physical goods what Kinko's did for printed products, said David Pescovitz, a research director at the Institute for the Future, a forecasting group in Menlo Park.

"TechShop has the potential to be the service bureau to the maker culture," he said.

The atelier occupies a maze-like 15,000-square-foot warehouse near Stanford University. Twelve work tables fill the main space. Rooms are designated individually for activities such as painting, foam molding and neon production.

Since opening in October 2006, TechShop has attracted 300 members, each paying $100 a month for hands-on access to the sophisticated tools. The operation also sells supplies and charges for classes.

"It's like a health club," said TechShop founder Jim Newton, a former science advisor for the TV show "Myth Busters." "But instead of exercise equipment, we have welders and laser cutters and sheet-metal equipment."

Now TechShop is poised to expand. Newton, 45, plans to open 11 additional locations in the coming year. Soon, TechShops may appear in markets as diverse as Austin, Texas; Orlando, Fla.; and Los Angeles.

Newton expects the first Los Angeles location to open in early summer 2009. He said he was still looking for a partner in the area.

With franchises on the way, Newton hopes to emulate the bottom-up style of innovation employed by Kinko's. That company's early franchisees came up with such signature ideas as photo calendars, photo mugs and staying open 24 hours a day. "Each of the partners were very entrepreneurial," Newton said. "That's what we're trying to foster."

Newton even hired away a Kinko's executive to be his chief operating officer. Mark Hatch, now with TechShop, was the director of its $200-million computer services business. (The printing company's name is being phased out by parent FedEx Corp.)

It's not clear that TechShop will succeed outside Silicon Valley, which, after all, has a unique concentration of entrepreneurs and inventors.

Even veterans of the maker movement admit to skepticism. "I'm not predicting that every market could support a TechShop," said Dale Dougherty, editor of Make magazine. "These things are hard to pull off."

Still, Newton has ambitious plans to open 50 shops in the next five years.

TechShop's early success is a sign of the maker movement's recent renaissance. Magazines such as Make and ReadyMade promote the DIY ethos. The Maker Faire, a celebration of invention and crafts, drew 65,000 people to the San Mateo Fairgrounds last month.

Aside from TechShop's tools, its major asset is the opportunity it gives inventors to mingle. "We're about selling access to an incredible community of really smart, like-minded people," Newton said.

When Carson Hoyt, a design student at San Francisco State University, needed help laminating aluminum strips onto the body of a robotic guitar, a fellow TechShop member showed him how. "There's a lot of expertise here," Hoyt said.

Newton got the idea for TechShop after teaching a class on robot building at a local college. His students kept coming back -- not to learn more from Newton, but to use the machine shop.

To gauge interest for his endeavor in April 2006, Newton went to the first Maker Faire, where he set up a card table and a paper sign describing his idea for TechShop.

"We walked away with 250 people on our mailing list, just going nuts over the idea," Newton said. By the fall, he had raised $350,000 from so-called angel investors, all contacts from the list he compiled at the Maker Faire.

Scott Saxton, a retired pilot, plans to open a TechShop in Durham, N.C., this summer. He met Newton last year while perusing a recreational vehicle parts store near Menlo Park. "Within half an hour I was down at TechShop taking a tour, and the hair went up on the back of my neck," he said.

He was overwhelmed by what he saw: a community of makers swapping ideas, a room full of milling machines and a wall stacked high with scrap circuit boards and spare parts.

Saxton has secured a 25,000-square-foot space. He said start-up costs would be $500,000, which he is raising through local lenders. He plans to hire 20 employees to keep the shop open around the clock -- inventors keep odd hours -- and said he expected to be profitable by the end of his first fiscal year.

Newton and the team in Menlo Park will coordinate the purchase or lease of equipment, ensuring that each TechShop is similarly equipped. The list of tools will include industrial sewing machines, a Rotex sheet-metal turret punch and a full wood shop, to name a few.

And although high-powered tools and amateur builders might seem a dangerous combination, there have been no major accidents at the original TechShop in 18 months. Members, who sign waivers releasing TechShop from liability in the event of injury, also have to take basic classes before operating the machines.

"People realize this stuff is dangerous," Newton said. "It's industrial equipment. We're really trying to develop a safety-oriented culture."

Yet with so many innovators in close quarters, the safety of proprietary ideas can be a concern. Although many TechShop members are happy to talk up their inventions -- a scuba diver showed off a new grip for an underwater spotlight, a hipster displayed a custom muffler for a moped -- others declined to discuss their work, shooing away curious onlookers.

"That's innovation," Newton said with a laugh. "Inventors are protective of their secrets."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Inventor help

Business: TechShop, based in Menlo Park, Calif., provides work space for inventors, offering access to expensive equipment and a community for exploring ideas.

Founder: Jim Newton, a former science advisor for the TV show "Myth Busters."

Members: 300

Cost: $100 a month

Future: Plans to open 11 locations in the next year, including one in Los Angeles.

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