The Generator maker space in Burlington is approaching its first year of operation. Located in a 5,000-square-foot space in the city-owned Memorial Auditorium, Generator is home to several eclectic small businesses.
Twelve months in, Generator has 76 members. Most pay $65 a month for access to a half-million dollars worth of tools and machinery. Some members pay $190 a month for their own 6-by-8 foot studio – basically a cubicle with four-foot high walls. All 16 of the studios are occupied.
Michael Metz, chairman of Generator’s board of directors, says the maker space could use more space.
“If we had four more studios, I think we’d rent them in a week,” Metz says. “They’re in demand. There’s a backlog already for them.”
Metz says Generator has quickly developed a culture of nurturing small businesses and that the budding entrepreneurs at the maker space have been helping each other out. One of the start-ups is developing drones used for industry and agriculture. AirShark drones could be used for monitoring utility power lines, crops or construction sites.
Inside Memorial Auditorium, one of the founders of AirShark demonstrated one of its drones. Ian Ray says AirShark has been using a high-end 3D printer at Generator to make one-off parts used to attach thermal and video cameras to its drones, which the start-up builds itself. But the 27-year-old entrepreneur says that sophisticated digital tools are not the only valuable resource at the maker space.
"The beauty of being in this space is that there are people who are much more skilled in mechanical design or electrical design,” Ray says. “If you need to get a thing done, there’s probably somebody who knows how to do it. Or knows somebody who knows somebody. And that’s been a beautiful thing, that two cubes down from where I’m sitting, I can [say], ‘Hey, Matt, can you give me a hand?’ And enlist help very quickly like that.”
The Matt he’s referring to is Matt Flego, one of Generator’s operations managers. Flego is the "M" in M//E Design, a small company that, among other things, manufactures bar stools. Flego has two studios at Generator, which have a mere 8-by-12 foot footprint. But that space is big enough to house Flego’s homemade CNC router, which he uses to cut round seats for the bar stools out of 1 1/2 inch-thick squares of wood. The machine, which is essentially a handheld router attached to a frame whose movements are controlled by a computer, makes quite a racket.
"I’ve been very conscious of it, so I tend to run all of my parts late at night. Late, here, is sort of the time when most of the craftsmen really come out of the woodwork. And you’ll see seven or eight people in here making tons of noise,” Flego says.
A couple of cubicles away sits Aaron Wisniewski, whose business is Alice and the Magician. His operation is relatively silent.
Wisniewski creates edible fragrances for bartenders, chefs and anyone who wants their own personal scent. He points to a row of small glass perfume bottles filled with his creations and reads the labels.
“This is coconut and Mexican lime. This is chocolate birthday cake. This is summer girlfriend.”
Your VPR correspondent is not sure whether he wants to hear what goes into "summer girlfriend."
“It’s got the warm sand, suntan lotion, shampoo,” Wisniewski explains. “It’s a kind of scent memory from my early teens.”
Wisniewski initially launched his edible fragrances business at home. In his Generator studio he swivels in his chair to point out the production and clerical areas of the modest Alice and the Magician headquarters, all contained within his cubicle. Wisniewski says that someone at the maker space put him in touch with a woman in New Orleans who is starting a skin care products business and needs fragrances.
“When I got here, almost immediately I realized that the space was a fringe benefit to the networking and to the resources that are available here,” he says. “And so the community here – and it really is a community – we look out for each other. And because it’s a business generator, they’re really into not just, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Can I help you make that?’ It’s, ‘How can I help you make money off that? How can I help you promote that?’”
But the machinery itself at Generator makes it possible for some first-time entrepreneurs to launch a business. Twice a week, Connie Perignat-Lisle drives from her home in Waterbury to Burlington where she etches designs onto slate tiles using Generator's laser cutter. Perignat-Lisle's business is called the River Slate Company. A retired math teacher, she was given a four-month membership at the maker space by former colleagues at Harwood Union High School in South Duxbury.
“I think of it as, I’ve closed one door, being a teacher. And now here’s another door that has opened,” she says. “And I envision [River Slate Company] as a growing business.”
Indeed, Perignat-Lisle has begun selling tiles with images of leaves and birds at stores in Waterbury.
In addition to her monthly membership fee, she pays $8 an hour to use the laser cutter. That hourly rate is a bargain as far as Alex Kline is concerned. Kline went to school with Perignat-Lisle’s son. She lives in Warren and drives an hour to get to Generator where she uses the laser cutter to cut pieces from bicycle inner tubes for the earrings she makes.
“Without this place my business wouldn’t be possible,” Kline says. “It’s the only place right now that I know of that has a laser cutter that’s open to the public for a pretty inexpensive price."
In January, the first of Generator’s makers-in-residence began their two-month stint, which includes a stipend and studio space. Two makers from the Cardboard Tek Institute in Montpelier have been using the laser cutter to cut cardboard. They do an interactive performance called Grottoblaster, which involves puppets and hip-hop music. Ben Matchstick, a "professor" at the institute, says the cardboard will be used to make something called the Pinbox, which he describes as the antithesis of the Xbox.
“It’s a home-use cardboard-tech pinball machine that also has a battle mode setting, so that if you have multiple pinball machines you can put them up next to each other and you can battle your friends,” Matchstick explains.
Generator’s executive director, Lars Hasselblad Torres, hopes to have 100 members by June. He’s bullish on the future of the maker space.
"I feel that in Burlington we’re at the right cultural moment," Hasselblad Torres told VPR. "We’ve got a lot of interest in people being entrepreneurial, being creative. We’re at the right economic moment. We're coming out of recession. It's a great time to start a business. We’ve got a lot of companies here that have done well and they’re looking for ways to give back and build the next generation of entrepreneurs. And we’re at the right technological moment, right? Where the tools are out there."
And there are more tools coming. Generator’s wood shop will be up and running later this month. The Vermont Woodworking School will conduct classes there in the spring.
Maker spaces are currently being formed in St. Johnsbury and White River Junction.