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Makerspaces And Co-Working Offices Provide Inspiration And Community

October 11, 2017

The wall of shared tools at Prototype PGH. Credit: Devon Dill

By Eric Seiverling

If you equate coworking office spaces as nothing more than an opportunity for two people to share a room with a desk, you might want to think again

Vinyl cutters, laser cutters, 3D printers, sewing machines, heat presses and milling machines are now part of the arsenal of tools that can be shared at makerspaces.

And as Pittsburgh becomes recognized as a major force in technology, more makerspaces and coworking spaces are sprouting up in a neighborhood near you.

“It’s tough for startups to get momentum and to decide which course to sail,” said Carey Casile, a member of the organizing team for Techstars’ Startup Weekend, taking place in November at AlphaLab in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. “But, coworking is great because they’re in close quarters and they help each other with growth and direction. They’re all in the same boat. It’s more of an alliance.”

According to Casile, startup companies aren’t just focused on technology. The Startup Weekend sees business ideas range from artificial intelligence, healthcare, software, and travel.

The Startup Weekend has become so successful in Pittsburgh, TechStar caps the weekend’s applications at 120 people.

“I equate Pittsburgh as an up-and-coming Silicon Valley,” Casile said. “With companies like Google, Uber, and Carnegie Mellon University, there’s definitely a home for makerspaces and startups. I think that’s making Pittsburgh into a thriving tech city.”

If you’re not interested in competing with hundreds of other makers and just want to tinker with an idea or learn how to use simple hand tools, there are numerous makerspaces throughout Pittsburgh that will welcome you with open arms.

“The maker movement is different to everybody,” said Chad Elish, president of HackPGH, the area’s oldest makerspace. “We have people who want to start their own companies and we have people who are just tinkering. They can break the mold and not work for a corporate company. They can do what they love. That’s a game changer.”

Founded in 2009, HackPgh is a non-profit community-based workshop that allows members to come together and share skills and tools to pursue creative projects.

Elish said the number of HackPGH members has doubled over the past five years.

“The more people who get their hands dirty, the better,” Elish said. “This is a safe place to make mistakes. This is an adult way to have a community or social club.”

prototypepicWomen get their hands dirty at Prototype PGH. Credit: Prototype PGH

Nina Barbuto, founder and director of Assemble, agrees with Elish that Pittsburgh’s makerspace community is growing.

“In 2011, the word ‘makerspace’ wasn’t even in our vocabulary,” she said. “Now, there’s makerspaces in schools and even churches. Even Pitt has makerspaces in its cafeteria. Anyone can be a maker.”

At Assemble, entrepreneurs and tinkerers can share paper, scissors, hot glue, science supplies, 3D printers, and laser cutters.

Barbuto and Assemble’s teachers work with people ranging from elementary school students to senior citizens.

“Our maker community is pretty well mixed,” Barbuto said. “We consider ourselves one of the on-ramps to a more elaborate makerspace. You just have to find out where you fall.”

Women and those who identify as feminists may find a home at  Prototype PGH, Pittsburgh’s self-proclaimed feminist makerspace.

Founded in January of this year by Erin Gatz and E. Louise Larson, Prototype PGH’s focus remains on gender equity.

“The trend we saw was that women were missing from other makerspaces,” Gatz said. “No matter what your income, gender or ethnic background, we want you to feel welcome here.”

Prototype PGH’s shared tools includes soldering irons, sewing machines, heat presses, hand tools and a Boxzy machine.

“We have people here who have never used a power tool before coming here,” Gatz said. “We’ll show them how to use it without judgement. Our mission is to build confidence. You come as you are. Everyone is a maker.”

Ellen Saksen, co-founder and CEO of Go Jane Go and winner of last year’s Startup Weekend, is proof that Pittsburgh’s makerspace community works.

Go Jane Go is a real-time app that helps women on solo business travel find like-minded female business professionals within their proximity.

“Pittsburgh is awesome because there’s something for everyone,” Saksen, who can be regularly found using the co-working spaces at Alloy 26, said. “There’s really affordable places to work and they do a good job of providing programs and that’s very motivating. My sense is that the people have a lot of heart for it. That’s unique to Pittsburgh.”