Fine Print - January 2010

Tinkers tailor innovation
By G.D. Gearino

It hasn’t been a good year for research and development. In and around Research Triangle Park, which is old enough (51 this month) to be admired for its longevity and to feel the occasional ache in its bones, there were a couple of significant twinges in November. Pfizer Inc. announced that it would close a half-dozen R&D sites, including one in Sanford and its lab just outside RTP. Only nine days later, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB, the world’s fourth-biggest manufacturer of mobile phones, said it was closing its RTP operation and shedding 425 jobs. All this, of course, came on top of other cutbacks over the years by the likes of IBM, Nortel and GlaxoSmithKline.

It’s part of a larger trend. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that corporate R&D spending is growing at a substantially slower rate than it did in the 1980s and 1990s, with spending in 2010 expected to be essentially flat. What this means for RTP and the state is yet to be seen. But what it means for Scott Saxon already is abundantly clear.

Saxon is the owner, operator, chief instructor, head tool wrangler, den father and safety enforcer of TechShop Durham LLC, a 25,000-square-foot workshop across the street from RTP. It is the 21st century incarnation of the garages and backyard sheds of yore, where tinkerers with grand, crazy ideas developed such things as cars and computers (later calling them Fords and Apples). Durham’s version is found in a low-rise, suburban office park, with the requisite handicapped parking out front and a conference room within — even Gyro Gearloose needs to take a meeting occasionally. At the cost of a modest monthly fee, anybody with an idea or just a need to get out of the house, can avail himself of a quarter-million dollars’ worth of machinery and tools. The truly ambitious can even rent a private space where a big-bucks idea can be refined discreetly. Or you can simply build birdhouses to sell on the side of the road. Your choice. “People here are repairing things, they’re modifying things, they’re hacking things,” Saxon says.

I won’t be so bold as to call this a sea change in the world of R&D, but neither are the timing and circumstance coincidental. While there are only three TechShop locations so far — the others are in Menlo Park, Calif., and Beaverton, Ore. — the concept behind the business has that classic hallmark of a good idea: It can be explained in one simple sentence and understood by anyone. After all, who can afford a plasma cutter, 3D printer or a milling machine on their own dime? What tinkerer wouldn’t see the benefit of having user rights to all that and more for about the cost of a monthly gym membership?

Saxon got the concept right away when he visited the Menlo Park site, where TechShop was pioneered. He saw people tinkering with various projects, but the more significant sight was that of creative interaction. One person might be working alone, as he would be in the shed behind his house, but other people were around and available for a quick opinion on a knotty problem — as would be the case at a corporate R&D lab.

A Navy veteran who has been an aviation mechanic and recording engineer — among other things — and is a lifelong tinkerer himself, Saxon returned to Durham determined to open a TechShop in the Triangle. He selected a location with care, looking for that geographic midpoint of the population — which felicitously happened to be adjacent to RTP. Spending about $500,000 in startup costs, he opened last March. So far, about 150 people have signed on to pay the $99 monthly fee. Some could hardly be described as inventors or innovators — one elderly woman uses TechShop as a place to set up her easel and paint landscapes from photos — but others qualify. One group, for instance, uses the place to perfect a device that uses a kite to produce wind energy.

Will a society-changing inn-ovation emerge from TechShop? Probably not. Will somebody at least make money from their tinkering? Possibly and maybe even likely. But the most valuable service provided by the workshop, and others like it flowering around the country, is that we are reminded of a historical truth about technology and scientific knowledge: The biggest leaps often come from people working outside the establishment. Remember, powered flight originated in an Ohio bicycle shop, the science of genetics was born in the garden of a German monastery, and the cotton gin was created by an unemployed teacher trying to make himself useful around a Georgia plantation. None of them received so much as a dime of corporate R&D financing.