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Staff photo by Don Himsel


Make It Labs
Thursday, January 5, 2012

MakeIt Labs doing shop fixes

NASHUA – The region’s first hackerspace, MakeIt Labs, is working to reopen after being shut due to building-code issues in the former foundry where it set up shop in July, and the city might help out with a micro-loan.

“Something like this could be a death blow to a hackerspace, but we’re definitely sticking around. We’re here for the long haul,” said Adam Shrey of Hudson, a member of the board of directors.

The nonprofit MakeIt Labs, described by founder Joseph Schlesinger as a “gym for professional engineers,” sells monthly memberships that provide access to tools, workspace, shared expertise and a free-wheeling culture that encourages making your stuff in innovative ways. It is part of what is known loosely as the “maker” movement, and due to shared ideology with the good-guy aspects of computer hacking, the term “hackerspace” is often used for such facilities.

MakeIt Labs, which has an auto lift, a kiln and a laser cutter as well as various metal-cutting shop tools and large amounts of computer equipment, is the first hackerspace in New Hampshire. The next closest is in Somerville, Mass.

It opened this summer in an old foundry on Crown Street, but somehow escaped the city’s attention until mid-December, when inspectors from the fire and building departments shut it down due to concerns about life-safety issues and lack of permits.

“None of us had ever rented commercial property before. We didn’t know the permits were needed,” Shrey said.

Since then, members and supporters have been moving equipment, building partitions, cleaning up spills, doing rewiring, plugging holes in old electrical boxes, and making various other fixes to address official concerns. The landlord has addressed such things as the gas connections for the space heater.

“There were no structural issues,” Shrey said. “A lot of the problems were here before we moved in.”

MakeIt Labs has rented 6,000 square feet that is part of an old, ramshackle industrial complex, which holds a variety of firms, between railroad yards and the Merrimack River.

When MakeIt Labs moved in they installed a toilet, but it isn’t handicapped-accessible. Making that change is the one big fix needed so the group can apply for a temporary occupancy permit and get going again. They have an electrician-plumber member working for free, but he can only fit in time around his real job, which delays things.

MakeIt Labs is funded out of the pockets of its founders, with memberships starting at $40 a month designed to establish a cash flow.

One step the group is taking involves talking to Nashua about whether to apply for the city’s innovative “micro-loan” program. The loans typically run from $5,000 to $15,000, with a cap of $25,000 and are usually repaid within three years. They are designed to help small businesses whose needs are too small for traditional bank loans.

“They are the type of industry we’re looking to help: entrepreneurial, workforce development projects. We have not funded a nonprofit for this program before, but we can be flexible,” said Linda LaFleur in Nashua’s Office of Economic Development, which oversees the loan program.

So far the city has given out two micro-loans, which are funded by federal community development block grants: one to a distributor and one to a coffee shop.

Shrey said the city has been eager to help. When MakeIt Labs shut down, a number of officials including the Nashua Chamber of Commerce expressed support for the project, which fits into the city’s desire to be more attractive to young professionals.

“It’s almost the pre-business incubator stage, where ideas can get fostered, and seems like something that should be encouraged,” said Matt Cookson, executive director of the New Hampshire High-Tech Council.

Part of the complexity of hackerspaces is that they are new and unusual, with some of the attributes of a commercial firm and some of the attributes of a club.

Shrey said this novelty was obvious when the group applied for liability insurance, because it took the agent some time to figure out how to classify MakeIt Labs within the company’s software.

“There’s no drop-down box for ‘hackerspace’,” he noted.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.