Where Entrepreneurs Go Shopping

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary Rivlin

A string of inventors' clubs aims to reinvigorate the spirit that shaped our economy.

Between the time Apple unveiled its first iPad, in January 2010, and its release three months later, a 28-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Patrick Buckley had an idea. A lot of Buckley's friends and family had said they were so in love with the feel of books that they couldn't fathom switching to an electronic gadget. Why not create a product that made holding an iPad feel something like cozying up with a book? Only Buckley, like most aspiring inventors, didn't have a basement outfitted with a router drill or any of the other specialized tools needed to create a prototype. Nor did he have the cash needed to pay a high-end design firm to make one for him.

What Buckley did have: access to a nearby TechShop, a fledgling chain of workshops equipped with enough laser cutters, high-end saws, and other heavy-duty equipment to cause the eyes of any serious-minded do-it-yourselfer to bulge wide.

Within four weeks, Buckley says, he had a prototype for a bamboo-and-moleskin iPad holder called the DODOcase. He went on to sell $1 million worth of DODOs during the first four months the iPad was on the market, after investing less than $1,000. Today, Buckley runs a 40-person company and continues to expand even in a lousy economy. "I don't know what I would have done if TechShop didn't exist," he says.

That's a common refrain among entrepreneurs these days. TechShop helped spawn the electric-powered Lightning Motorcycle, slated to hit the market in 2012. It allowed a former clean-technology executive named Mark Goldman to create easy-to-install solar panels he hopes to start selling later this year. And it provided a home for a pair of 60-something electrical engineers who built a water-based system for cooling computer equipment that cuts energy output by as much as 80 percent.

In each case, these inventors say they're fortunate to have found a place that gave them access to hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of design equipment and tools--all for a monthly membership fee of $100 per month. …