Monday, August 29, 2011

Entrepreneurship, manufacturing, and things you can drop on your foot

On a recent business trip to California, I met with some of my former students who are now entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley, predominantly working in consumer internet and mobile apps. These sectors are typified by low capital costs, rapid prototyping and customer engagement, flexible business models, scalability, and potentially (and frequently actual) significant returns to investors. But this success prompted thoughts of whether we could be doing more to support entrepreneurship based around creating value from tangible "things you can drop on your toes" as opposed to the more intangible worlds of software and services.
This opens a whole debate that is way above my pay grade. On the one hand there is the rational but complex debate on what manufacturing actually is, its role in an economy and its impact in growth. There is also the less rational debate about it being somehow 'better' to create value from 'real things'. This is an issue of great interest in Japan at the moment, where the culture of monozukuri (making things) underpinned the phenomenal post-war recovery, but which some believe now hinders Japan's ability to renew itself ("A Samurai would never write software" as one Japanese manager put it in a recent article on Japan in The Economist).
But if we put that debate to one side and take the view that there is a role for creating value from addressing customer needs through the provision of physical devices, then we should make sure that 'manufacturing' entrepreneurs have access to the resources they need to get their ideas to market. One of the most common needs is access to prototyping equipment, the cost of which is typically way beyond any individual inventor or start-up company. The provision of publicly accessible tools (a part of what academics sometimes grandly call 'industrial commons') can therefore be a key enabler for manufacturing entrepreneurs.
There are many examples of organisations providing access to such tools (e.g. for life sciences, the Babraham Technology Development Lab, and for advanced engineering, the Hethel Engineering Centre). These organisations typically combine public and private investment and leverage existing infrastructure to provide support to entrepreneurs. But there is still a need to provide advice, a place for experimentation, and a supportive community for those at the very earliest stages of the development of ideas. It was therefore very pleasing - during the same trip to California where almost everything seemed to be web and mobile focused - to meet with the CEO of Tech Shop in San Francisco. Tech Shop provides a great example of how tools can be provided to support manufacturing entrepreneurs at the very early stages of the development of business ideas. As the CEO put it: "We provide access to tools to help people accelerate their projects". This is not a contract R&D service; it is about providing access to tools and support to help people experiment, explore and develop their ideas. Examples of businesses that have been developed through Tech Shop included Square, Solumtech, DripTech, Clustered Systems and Embrace.
And this is why it is so exciting to see that the MakeSpace project is really gaining momentum in Cambridge, and is about to set up in its new home in - very appropriately - an old factory in the city centre.