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Giving Inventors the Tools to Innovate

Aired February 3, 2013 - 14:30   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think when you give everyday people access to the tools of innovation, amazing things can happen.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to "THE NEXT LIST." As a lifelong do it yourselfer, Jim Newton knows the power of having an idea and the tools to bring it to life.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a fully functional kayak that folds up into a suitcase-sized box.


GUPTA: Newton is fashioned about sharing that power with everyone who wants to put creative ability to work.


JIM NEWTON, CHAIRMAN AND FOUNDER, TECHSHOP: I don't think you have to teach innovation. I just think you have to coax people out of their fear of trying to innovate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, for me it was really a lifesaver and I kind of get choked up talking about it because it really meant a whole lot. It still matters a whole lot.


GUPTA: It's one of the reasons he founded TechShop. It's an open space innovation shop that for about $100 a month, members can use cutting edge tools to develop ideas, design prototypes even launch their own businesses. The other reason, all because it's just plain fun.


NEWTON: You see them say it, wow, I really can do this. This is stunning. They're stunned.


GUPTA: It's an idea born of a simple conviction that if you can dream it, you can build it. And some of those dreams are changing lives.


NEWTON: I think when you give everyday people access to the tools of innovation, amazing things can happen. Everybody has an idea in their head of something they want to make. Ask anybody on the street. At first they may say, I don't know, I don't think so.

But if you dig a little deeper, pretty soon they'll say, maybe it's something for your car or maybe it's something for your house or an improvement. Once you dig that out of them, they'll open up and they'll they will you all about this thing they want to make.

So what happens if you give these people access to tools that they need to actually realize those things? There are some really good ideas out there in people's heads that society needs. What TechShop brings to members that come in here is the ability to take the idea out of their head and get it into real form.

It's very hard to do that for a lot of different reasons, from people being afraid to try to not having the right tools or equipment, to not knowing how to do the stuff. There are all these factors that prevent you from executing your idea.

The goal of TechShop is to guide people through on a path to success so they can actually realize that idea.

ANTON WILLIS, FOUNDER, ORU KAYAK: This is the ORU Kayak. It's a fully functional kayak that folds up into a suit-case sized box for transport and storage.

I came to think of this a few years ago when I moved into a small apartment and had to put my kayak into storage, and about that time, I read this magazine article on Origami, which inspired me to think about ways to fold up a book.

I think there are a lot of great things about TechShop. Just the access to tools and facilities, obviously, it's completely amazing because you can make pretty much almost anything you can imagine.

GUPTA: When you started the TechShop, did you have an idea of the type of equipment?

NEWTON: Yes. I had a list of about 200 things that I wanted to make. So I just looked at, what kind of tools do I need to make all those things? We have a huge range of equipment in the TechShop, everything from milling machines to lathes to welding and sheet metal equipment, a wood working water jet cutter that can cut through six inches thick of anything on the planet.

GUPTA: How long would it take to do something like that?

NEWTON: That probably was maybe a 5-minute cut. The other thing that's great about TechShop is that we have our dream consultants on staff all the time. They'll come right over for free and help you out and make sure that you are having success and you feel confident about it.

DAVID LANG, OPEN RV: I lost my job about a year ago, and I was really kind of worried about the skills I didn't have. You know, I felt like I was only capable of sitting in front of a computer and typing e- mails. So I came to Tech shop with this big goal of re-skilling myself.

My name is David Lang. I'm with a group called Open RV. It's a community that I started. We've created an underwater robot. So basically, you plug this thing into your computer and you can drop it into a pond or a lake or the ocean and control it and see what it sees.

So we launch a kick starter project a month ago and we raised $110,000 from almost 500 people all over the world. So we are so busy building robots right now.

NEWTON: The way we do our classes at TechShop is, if you came over to my house and you wanted to learn how to use my welder, I'm not going to subject you to a six-month cost. All I'm going to do is say, look, watch me do this, watch out for this, be careful of this, this can hurt you.

Here's how to control this part. OK, now you try it. We teach the safety stuff, but we don't want to discourage you from using that equipment because it's going to take you so long to learn it. I don't think you have to teach innovation. I just think you have to coax people out of their fear of trying to innovate.

Everybody has creative abilities, but people just don't express them. I mean, I see people come in here that are afraid to try anything. We give them some classes and some encouragement and they have some success with their projects, and you see them change, you see them light up.

They say, wow, I really can do this. This is stunning. They're stunned. One of our members wanted to make a blanket to keep babies warm. They think it's going to save 100,000 babies' lives in the next five years.




NEWTON: Humans were made to make things. That's why we have thumbs. We've gotten away from making so much. There is that instinct active drive for people to create. I like to think that TechShop helps and rekindles that in people and gets them back to being makers.

The type of members that we attract varies so widely, from single moms to professional designers to artists. It's all over the board. It's men. It's women. It's young people. It's old people. It's really hard to say here's our typical member because there really aren't any. JIM MCKELVEY, CO-FOUNDER, SQUARE: I came to the TechShop because I needed a milling machine. I was building these things by hand and I was using a shop in St. Louis. When I came out here, I couldn't find a place to work.

And TechShop was this miraculous find had all the equipment and they have all these amazing people. I saw a guy making his own Segue way, a guy making a lunar lander.

NEWTON: You know, one of our members wanted to make a blanket to keep babies warm, typically in the third world where if a baby is born prematurely, it can't regulate its body temperature correctly. So if the parents or caretakers don't get that baby in an incubator in town, within a couple hours that baby will actually die.

RAJAN PATEL, EMBRACE: We needed a place where we could take our ideas from paper and make them a reality in a very quick way. We knew of TechShop and the facilities available both in machines and people, and decide to start protyping there.

So the magic of this product is a warm pack, this pouch here contains a special material, which is engineered to melt at 37 degrees or human body temperature precisely and also it has the ability to maintain that temperature for several hours after it's melted.

Once it's heated, you place it inside this baby wrap, then you zip up this pouch, and here you place the newborn. The heat will transfer this way, and once you close this up, it will actually create a small microenvironment of 37 degrees Celsius just like an incubator.

NEWTON: I think it's going to save a 100,000 babies' lives in the next five years. A lot of investors think, OK, here's my idea. I got to keep all private. I don't want people to steal it because it's not patented yet.

I suggest that people come in to TechShop and share this idea because when you do that and you get all these other, really, smart creative, inventive people working on your project with you.

They're going to contribute so much in intellectual property and upgrade your idea so much that it's really almost a shame to keep your idea private when you've got this huge resource available to you.

PATRICK BUCKLEY, DODOCASE: It's energetic that you can bounce your ideas around with people. If you hit a road block, you can usually get help and kind of work your way through it.

I'm Patrick Buckley. I'm the chief designer here at DODOcase. DODOcase is a manufacturer of book bound cases for tablets such as the iPads and the Kindle.

When the iPad first was announced, I saw an immediate kind of opportunity where we've been developing the prototype at TechShop and we continued to do the early production at TechShop using their equipment. What TechShop did for DODOcase was really help improve the demand for our product in the marketplace? We were able to do it quickly and get it into the market at a very critical moment.

We went from hoping someone would buy one case to within a month, we had hundreds of orders every day. It would have been nearly impossible for us to do what we did without TechShop.

NEWTON: It's like sandwich of your kids -- your favorite kid. There are so many things that -- it could be little tiny things, it could be big world-changing things. All the things the people do here just really, really lighten you up.

They really excite me. A lot of companies and organizations say they want to change the world, but TechShop actually will and is changing the world, because our members have ideas, they know what will change the world and they do.

TechShop empowers people to come in here and build businesses that create jobs. They create devices that save lives. To create devices that allows merchants to take credit cards where they never could before.

There are hundreds of examples for things that are made here that have this ripple effect far into far, far outside of TechShop's reach. But really, what you can see in TechShop is the spirit of the people there, and that's just super inspiring.

You think you can't have an idea? Go to TechShop and you know, watch some guy, you know, build a folding kayak or create some sort of do- dad that you can't even contemplate. It's just great to be around people like that. It brings you up.




NEWTON: Everything I do pretty much is about making stuff and there are different kinds of making stuff. I guess, I like to bake bread so I do a lot of sour dough bread. Sour dough is a real art because you have this living culture that you have to keep alive, feed it and nourish it.

It's like having a pet, it really is, except you put it in an oven and kill it occasionally. For me making bread is just relaxing. I started TechShop actually for selfish reasons. I wanted access to the tools and equipment that would allow me to make all the ideas that I had in my head.

I always got ideas of things I want to make. This is my electric cargo bike that I built for burning man last year. I found out I was going to burning man, and I wanted really nice transportation around in the playa. So I built this in about four days. Come around here. If here there are two car batteries. Everybody would yell, ice cream man when they saw me riding it.

Next time I take this out, I want to have a freezer in here with ice cream in it so when someone says ice cream man. I can stop and offer them ice cream.

It's really, really amazing to build something in your head and say, I want that. Instead of going out and trying to buy it somewhere, you just say I'm going to make it exactly the way I want it.

I was raised here in the bay area, San Francisco bay area. I've always been a pinker and a hacker all my life. I've always wanted to take things apart and see how stuff works.

When I was about six, my dad built a dune buggy from scratch. I remember him rolling a Volkswagen bug into the garage, and he took the body off, cut the frame, welded all the pieces together, put a new body on it and transformed this car.

That was one of the critical points in my life when I learned that you can do pretty amazing things just with your hands and some tools. You can make something as amazing as a car.

BARBARA NEWTON: He's funny. He probably thinks some of his jokes are funnier than I do, but he's funny. One time I went away for a weekend, and he made a mud pit in the backyard for the kids. He dug a hole and filled it with water, made the thing as muddy as he possible could, and they loved it. I wanted to give him a little bit of that freedom because I thought it was awesome.

NEWTON: We made a go-cart, we made a street go-cart. The three kids and I went into the garage, cut steel, welded all this frame together, made a brake system and designed it from scratch. We did it in like one afternoon. By the end of the evening, the kids were all taking turns racing this car down the hill.

BARBARA NEWTON: I guess I always hoped that some of his building of the race cars and the mud pits and some of that is to maybe not always play it safe, maybe not always do stuff that is sanctioned.

NEWTON: I hate when I have to fill out some application or form and it says, occupation, because I never, ever know what to put down. Sometimes I put, you know, chairman or founder. If I put maker, they'll never know what it means.

I was at "Meatbuster," science adviser for Season 3 for that whole year. Everyone would love to go on that show and build stuff and blow stuff up. My job there was to basically take the story that we were going to do and do small-scale pre-experiments.

Take some ping-pong balls and submerge them and see which way they would float, or put a hot dog in a tray of salt water or freshwater and measure the current going across. That's the story of when we drop appliances in the bathtub, just one of the best jobs in the world.

BARBARA NEWTON: When he talked about tech shop, he wanted a shop. He wanted his tools, and I was really happy to get stuff out of the house. But he was getting e-mails from people right away, people from all over the country and around the world wanting a TechShop there.

He gets calls from Washington. He tells me this stuff and it's unbelievable. I can't believe this idea that we had started out not as something to change the world, it's just to get him his tools. It's struck a nerve for so many people and it might change the world.

NEWTON: One of the really exciting things we're doing right now is working with the VA to provide memberships to the veterans that are coming back from the war.



NEWTON: Innovation is pretty important to a country's life blood, I think, last time I checked. One thing we don't really think about is you look around, and everything that we interact with has been designed by somebody.

A lot of times it has a lot of innovative thinking behind it to make it a better product or a more affordable product or a more durable product or something that's in a new category or no one has ever designed something like that before. All of that innovation that happens doesn't just happen. It has to come from people.

BUCKLEY: Over the course of the past two and a half years, we've grown from two or three of us that started the business to 30 or so employees.

Any little bit that we can do to kind of keep the craftspeople of the community doing what they love to do is really something that gets me excited every morning.

PATEL: And what's unique about TechShop is it enables people to come in and do things themselves. You actually surprise yourselves at what you can do in such a little time.

MCKELVEY: It's just inspiring. Sometimes I would do design work just sitting in their lobby surrounded by this buzz of brilliance. It's fantastic.

NEWTON: One of the really exciting things we're doing right now is working with the VA to provide memberships to veterans that are coming back from the war. It seems like a lot of times veterans come back from the war and they end up with some menial job.

I see that a lot. I think they deserve more than that. I think they deserve to be able to follow their ideas and their creativity and express themselves way product or a business or whatever they want to do with it. JONAH CZERWINSKI, DIRECTOR, VA INNOVATION INITIATIVE: The vision here is that in five years we've got all of those veterans who use these memberships highly employed, earning the best they can possibly earn or managing or running their own businesses.

NEWTON: I think that everybody is really born to be a maker, born to be creative. And I think something that happens is you grow up, you're a little kid, you're drawing pictures and they're scribbled, but that scribble looks like something to you.

You're using your imagination to project that. When you get a little older, you draw a picture and maybe somebody says, what is that? And that's like the shattering statement, what is that?

TechShop plays a role in building people's confidence, that's what our whole business is based on, is making sure that a customer has a successful and fun experience.

LANG: That was a really scary thing. When you lose your job, they take your spirit from you. That was a really hard time. When I came here, I can't even explain coming here but using my skills. Just coming in and welding.

By the end of the day, I could say, you know what, I made something, rather than just sending a bunch of resumes and not hearing back. I kind of get choked up talking about it because it mattered a whole lot to me. It still matters a whole lot.

NEWTON: One of the most amazing things at tech shop for me is seeing people come into this new environment and seeing them light up the first time they come up with a project. I'll be out in the lobby, and I like to ask people what they made.

Somebody will come out and they'll have all their gear all bundled up and I'll say, hi, did you have fun today? What did you make? And they'll say, let me show you. And they'll unpack their whole kit just to get that little piece of metal they machined out to show me.

Look what I made? That's my favorite part. The good thing is that from the very beginning, I did want to do it to empower people. It's growing so quickly now that in 10 years, we could have a million members. It's pretty cool.

I'm a very lucky guy, lucky with my family, lucky with my business. I constantly feel that I'm just very lucky to have the opportunity to build this company and reach and touch so many people's lives. Not very many people get to do that.


GUPTA: Jim Newton says he never could have dreamed the impact that TechShop has had on so many people. He's now determined to open one in every major city in the country with the hope that new ideas and new inventions will come of it, or at least a lot of fun.

Newton is not only achieving his own dream, he's giving others the power to achieve theirs. That's why we put him on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on Jim and other agents of change, check us out online, like us on Facebook.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hope to see you back here next week.