Burlington maker space is growing

Source, Published October 15, 2014

When Burlington supported the launch of a new space for science, art and creativity at Memorial Auditorium in late March, organizers weren’t certain of success.

“We’re feeling our way,” Michael Metz, president of the Generator board of directors, said at the time. The budding nonprofit had unveiled a room with studios, computers, a 3-D printer, a laser cutter, sand blaster and other tools, and it was looking for a sustainable business model, which would be evaluated over the summer.

After about half a year, Metz now says the initative has been a success, and it will probably stay in Memorial Auditorium for at least two years.

Seven businesses have been born in Generator, using “rapid protoyping” tools and support available there, according to the organization’s first annual report, which was released Tuesday. None have yet graduated to find their own space.

The 47 members at Generator include an industrial designer working on a cellphone accessory for athletes, a business that wants to make custom puzzle-piece maps for schools, and a jeweler who’s exploring ideas for opening her own store.

“I think just from a progress perspective, we’re very satisfied with where we are,” said Doreen Kraft, executive director of Burlington City Arts and a member of Generator’s board of directors. “I’d give it a B+,” she said, before revising that assessment to an “A.”

Generator is one of a group of startup accelerators, coworking spaces and maker spaces that have recently sprung up in Burlington — including a new MakerLab at Champlain College and a coworking space for startups at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington, which opened this week.

‘A unique moment’

The budding nonprofit also recently announced a significant hire: Lars Hasselblad Torres will soon become executive director, leaving a job as director of the state Office of the Creative Economy.

Torres calls Generator “a design and fabrication sandbox.” He said he’s excited to get to know Burlington’s entrepreneurs and technology innovators.

“I think Burlington is at a unique moment in its startup culture,” Torres said in an interview.

Torres wants to draw businesses to Burlington by marketing a “made in BTV” movement.

“How do we celebrate the Queen City as a hub for restless innovators anywhere on the East Coast, anywhere in the country?” Torres asked.

In its annual report, Generator cited a Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council news release that ranked Vermont 48th out of 50 for business-friendly policies.

“At Generator, we understand the obstacles to business creation and offer important support for small business development in our region,” the report stated.

Generator also has an educational goal: Anyone can experiment with the tools there by becoming a member, and members who are teachers have brought school children to the space. Burlington City Arts organizes educational programs at Generator, and Metz is excited about bringing in top students from Champlain College, the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

The nonprofit wants to reach out to “underrepresented groups” such as veterans, New Americans and women, and provide scholarships for low-income members.

Fundraising, memberships and studio rental revenues are ahead of expectations, Metz said — though other costs, like the adaptation of Memorial Auditorium and labor costs, exceeded budget.

The organization raised more than $250,000 in donations and in-kind support through the summer and has pledges for future years.

Matt Penney, a shop operations manager who oversees the metal department at Generator in Burlington, discusses the future expansion on Tuesday.

Blueprints

The organization needs to decide where it’s headed, physically. Burlington is allowing Generator to remain in the historic city-owned Memorial Auditorium annex through the end of 2016, paying rent with money received from 12 studio rentals.

Rent to the city is currently about $1,800 per month, said Kraft, the executive director of Burlington City Arts.

“We have a issue here with our size,” Metz said as he sat in a corner of the space on Tuesday. “I wish this were 5,000 square feet larger. We could have more tool sets.”

Eventually, Generator may choose to move to Pine Street — Metz said he’s eying the old Burlington Street Department site, which could be redeveloped in partnership with Burlington City Arts — or consolidate spaces with Champlain College.

Under a third option, after discussions with the city, Generator might expand within Memorial Auditorium.

For now, however, Generator’s members and leaders are still getting used to the first floor.

“This is theoretically going to be our woodshop,” Metz said, leading a tour toward tools on one side of the room that still aren’t set up. “We have to have a ventilator, it has to be sealed from the atmosphere. …. Right now, we basically have tools for our own build-out.”