Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In the nearly three years that I have been a technical liaison for the Nanotechnology Research Center (NRC), I have spoken to hundreds and perhaps thousands of potential users of our facility, as well as other interested individuals including students, teachers, scientists, professors, businessmen, alumni, and potential donors.  These interactions have become even more common since the Marcus Nanotechnology Building was dedicated nearly one year ago.  I don’t think a week (perhaps even a day) goes by without the presence of some group touring the building, led by myself or one of my NRC colleagues.

For me, one of the common elements of these talks, tours, and general discussions has been my struggle to convey the unique nature of the NRC’s operation.  The concept of an open facility that is available to users from outside its home university is so unusual in my experience and that of those I am speaking with that I have tried to come up with a comparable business that functions using a similar model.  Over the years I have mentioned the do-it-yourself Hobby Shops found on many military bases, and I used to even show a short advertising video that describes a business eerily similar to the NRC if you substitute the terms “cleanroom” for “auto shop” and “processing staff” for “auto mechanic.”  Even the combination of doing your own work or paying for service is preserved.  Still, it was a bit of a stretch.

Now, a recent article in the New York Times titled “Inventors Wanted. Cool Tools Provided.” (4/11/2010) describes TechShop, a do-it-yourself workshop (actually a chain of them) in the San Francisco Bay area that is much closer to the mark.  As described on the TechShop website:
TechShop is a 15,000 square-foot membership-based workshop that provides members with access to tools and equipment, instruction, and a community of creative and supportive people so they can build the things they have always wanted to make.
According to TechShop chief executive Mark Hatch (as quoted in the NYT article):
Making things is core to who we are as Americans. We are inventors. We are creators. Once you give people access to the tools, there will be a resurgence of creativity and innovation.
For a monthly access fee, members can take classes and use the equipment for macro-scale fabrication or use their consulting services for assistance with the work.  Think lathes, milling machines, and welders instead of mask aligners, plasma etchers, and electron microscopes.
You can think of TechShop like a fitness club, but with tools and equipment instead of exercise equipment...TechShop is perfect for inventors, makers, hackers, tinkerers…, and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up but don't have the tools, space or skills.
I couldn’t have created better marketing copy myself.  If you can understand the appeal and utility of TechShop, then the role filled by the Georgia Tech NRC and the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network becomes obvious.