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New organization creates space for local inventors, entrepreneurs

Frank Braski started his first business building and fixing computers at the age of 14.

Now, the local robotics engineer wants to spark an entrepreneurial revolution in Columbus.

He is cofounder of a new nonprofit organization called ColumbusMakesIT, which is part of a national movement to create "makerspaces" where people can connect with their creative and entrepreneurial selves.

The organization aims to inspire artists, engineers, programmers, tinkerers and inventors in the local community.

Braski, 43, said the Maker Movement is about going back to America's roots and harnessing a legacy of innovation.

"If you look at the history of our country, this great nation, down to a man, every one of our founding fathers, was pretty much an entrepreneur," he said. "And back then they made things. They invented things. They innovated things."

Braski and other cofounders of ColumbusMakesIT are already setting up shop in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse at 716 Front Ave., across the street from the Coca-Cola Space Science Center. They are renting the space from the River Valley Regional Commission. They already have about $40,000 worth of equipment through in-kind donations and recently received a grant from the Georgia Technology Authority.

And as if that wasn't enough to boost the fledgling organization, ColumbusMakesIT also received a shout-out from President Barack Obama last month. At the time, the president had declared June 12 to 18 National Week of Making, and in a news release he listed ColumbusMakesIT among organizations leading innovation across the nation.

Last month, ColumbusMakesIT held workshops for youths at the Urban League Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Summer Camp. Representatives from the organization taught the children, not only how to make and print designs on T-shirts, but also how to build their own print screening machines.

The group also wanted to create something that would benefit the community. So members contacted the United Way to see if any agencies needed something built.

They learned that Easter Seals needed cornhole boards for its residents. So ColumbusMakesIT built four cornhole boards for the facility, which were painted by artists from First Friday Art Walk.

David Hehman, 42, is another cofounder of ColumbusMakesIT. He, Braski, and another friend, Gil Strickland, were all members of an innovation team at TSYS when they came up with the idea for the center. They also participated in a six-month intensive Georgia Tech Startup Engineering program called Flashpoint.

Prior to volunteering full-time to launch the center, Hehman worked with TSYS for seven years, most recently as associate director of innovation. Braski currently works at Synovus as the eChannel manager for commercial banking. He also started the first LEGO League program in Columbus about six years ago.

Strickland, 38, is vice president of product development for BBVA Compass Bank. Other ColumbusMakesIT cofounders include Jim Livingston, special projects coordinator at River Valley Regional Commission, and Marc Tessier, cofounder of a company called S&T Geotronics.

The men are currently running the organization as volunteers, while they try to get additional grants to fully equip the facility and develop programs. In the meanwhile, they've been doing presentations at schools in Muscogee, Harris and Troup counties, as well at local organizations.

They've also been developing partnerships with artists at First Friday Art Walk and administrators at Troy University, which has an innovation program.

Hehman said the center will be for people of all ages and will open once the organization gets insurance and air conditioning.

"We'll have things like CNC machines, and laser cutters, and three-D printers, computers, sewing machines, all the big equipment that a lot of people don't have access to," he said. "You might have creative ideas, but if you feel limited, if you feel like you're stuck, and you can't do what you really want to do, it can be very challenging. We want to break down those barriers and provide a space where artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, all these computer geeks, everybody can come together and create some sort of magic."

Already volunteering at the center are many supporters. Among them is Sue Ann Holmes, a graphic artist who started working with Braski eight years ago when he coached her son in LEGO League.

Her four children are homeschooled, and they're all tinkerers, she said. Her 12-year-old son, Gabriel, said he's looking forward to the official opening of the center.

"I think that this place is going to be a place that's going to have all the resources I would want and need to do anything that my imagination wants," he said.

The Maker Movement is an extension of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Movement being fueled by America's obsession with home improvement and arts and crafts projects. But the Maker Movement is more technology based. It dates back to 2005 when a group of innovators launched a publication called, Make Magazine, in California. That led to annual Maker Faires, which now draw hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the country.

Mark Hatch, founder of a San Francisco-based company called TechShop, is author of "The Maker Movement Manifesto." He says the Maker Movement is fueled by changes in society.

"A number of trends are coming together to push the Maker Movement forward," Hatch wrote in his book. "Cheap, powerful, and easy-to-use tools play an important role. Easier access to knowledge, capital, and markets also help to push the revolution."

In a 2013 article published in USA Today, Martha Stewart estimated that there were approximately 135 million American adults who are makers. They represent 57 percent of the American population age 18 and older.

"It's a segment that is expanding rapidly in size and economic heft," Stewart wrote. "Makers pump some $29 billion into the economy each year, and these figures will surely grow."

The motto at ColumbusMakesIT is "Learn It, Make It, Live It." Tessier, 52, is an example of that entrepreneurial spirit.

He and his friend, James Sanderson, wanted to purchase a replica of the Enigma machine used by the Germans in World War II for enciphering and deciphering military codes.

When they couldn't find what they were looking for, they decided to build their own. Once the project was completed, they published free instructions online so other people could build their own Enigmas.

"We didn't think anyone would care, then overnight we had 10,000 views, people from all over the world saying, 'Oh it is cool. Can you offer a (circuit board), make a kit or sell us one?'" Tessier said. "We said jokingly, 'If we're ever going to make a second one, we are going to want $1,000.' We set the price at $1,000 and the money started flying in."

When Tessier and Sanderson couldn't keep up with the demand, they launched a campaign on a crowdfunding website called Kickstarter. They hoped to raise only about $20,000, but raised $64,000 in 30 days.

They also received about 100 orders. So Tessier quit his job as a network engineer and field project manager for a hotel computer and wifi service company.

They started S&T Geotronics and Tessier has been able to live off the income from the business. In addition to the Enigma machines, they also make solar panels, electric vehicles, electronic clocks and more.

Following his successful project, Tessier also wanted to establish a makerspace in Columbus. When Braski told him about plans for ColumbusMakesIT, he joined the team and became one of the cofounders.

Braksi said S&T Geotronics is an example of what is possible for others in Columbus if they let their creative energies flow.

He said ColumbusMakesIT will help members develop their own products, write business plans and access resources so they can grow successful businesses. The organization will also help people launch Kickstarter campaigns.

"We're really in this renaissance of modern manufacturing capabilities where, literally, what used to cost a million dollars can be done for less than $10,000, and what used to cost $10,000 can be done for free," he said.

"So its about giving people access to people who know how it's done, building that network of people who are interested in helping and then finding the people with the ideas, because ideas are truly abundant. There are lots of ideas, but it takes actually executing them."

Alva James-Johnson

Jul 19, 2015

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