Amber: Hi I’m Amber Ambrose and this is BusinessMakers USA coming to you from Columbus, Ohio, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. To that end my guest is Alex Bandar of the Columbus Idea Foundry. Welcome to the show Alex.
Alex: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
Amber: So what it the Columbus Idea Foundry?
Alex: So the Idea Foundry is a community of purpose for people who want to explore passions in art, in innovation, in software programming, passion projects; it’s a whole lot of fun. Something like a gym for tools.
Amber: Okay, and it sounds very broad because you go from the physical to even up to coding.
Alex: Oh absolutely. Woodworking to drones, blacksmithing to virtual reality, mobile apps to websites to business plans; it’s pretty inclusive.
Amber: So how do you include this broad of a scope in what you’re doing here?
Alex: I think we‘ve recently been empowered in the last 10 years by the fact that YouTube is pretty much the world’s university now.
Amber: That’s very true.
Alex: You can learn anything from Art History to Artificial Intelligence. We’ve almost made a college where we don’t have any professors on staff. If the presumption is that information is free and legally available out there then you just need design tools or a way to make a blueprint to make your idea happen. And some of that is even getting easier now; there are free software programs where you can virtually sculpt a ball of clay on the computer or even wear virtual reality goggles and carve a shape using wireless controllers. So now it’s easier than ever to actually create a digital file of the thing you’re thinking of and now that we have machines like 3D printers or laser cutters…
Amber: You’re blowing my mind here Alex.
Alex: I know, just hit print and then you’ve got your thing. It’s so easy now that the only bottlenecks now to really taking an idea out of your head and holding it in your hand are access to those tools, access to a friendly and talented community of people to show you how they work and then a clubhouse to call your own and I think that’s really the heart of any makerspace.
Amber: So talk to me about this playfulness concept, I now it’s part of everything you do.
Alex: It’s very much in the DNA of our mission and 10 years ago when I picked our motto I picked Knowledge, Talent and Mischief. I think if you have knowledge you’re pretty empowered, if you have talent then you’re realizing what you really want to do and a little mischief makes everyone fun. There’s a great educator in the UK, Sir Ken Robinson, has one of the most watched TED Talks and he says everyone is born creative. If you draw a circle and ask an adult what that is often they’ll say it’s a circle. If you ask a 5 year old they’ll say it’s a ball or it’s a cake or the moon and I love keeping people playful and creative and giving them an outlet to realize things that they might not be able to do at their 9 to 5 or in their garage at home.
Amber: Are you guys a nonprofit? Are you a for-profit? And how does that work?
Alex: So years ago I thought about starting an educational nonprofit to teach STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – to kids by tricking them with hands-on, functional art projects; so learning design, learn 3D printing, but it’s not techy, it’s really fun. And I was talking to my first commercial realtor, and I was explaining this to him 10 years ago, and he said what’s wrong with making a buck? And I thought you know what, nothing – he’s a great guy, Marvin Katz, big realtor in Columbus – I said nothing. If you’re effecting a social mission with an economically sustainable model then you’ve won. So I call us a social enterprise; we’re a for-profit, or for more than profit.
Amber: I might have to steal that.
Alex: Please do, I think I stole it from somebody. So our workshop is about 30,000 square feet of workstations from welding to woodworking and our second floor office space is about 30,000 square feet of co-working, lecture rooms, event space and offices. If we made the whole building just one big office building we could probably make a whole lot more money. People like interesting, exposed wood, brick; old buildings that have been turned into interesting co-working spaces, but we’re essentially leaving money on the table by effecting our mission of helping people learn what they like to do. So for this and other reasons we’re a for-profit. It also keeps us honest that if we’re not providing a service people are willing to pay for then we’re probably missing something and had better pivot. So I like being agile and adaptive and interesting.
Amber: I know you guys you’re empowering businesses, in a way you’re an incubator for people developing products and in that stage of their business.
Alex: Yeah, very coarsely you could say if you have an idea you can come to our workshop areas and realize that idea into a product. The if you like go to the more business side of our building and turn that product into a business. So we have about 30 offices which we’ve done a decent job of curating tenants who themselves help other startups. I frankly didn’t think there was a market for co-working. I thought if you have a cell phone and a bedroom you have an office, if you need to meet clients offsite you go to a coffee shop or a bar, so we wanted to bring more value. So if we have people who help you design the logo, design a website, file your business with the state, do accounting, business development, mobile app development, then we’ve got a real ecosystem or a one-stop shop for creative and tech startups. So that’s what we’ve intentionally done and we have several hundred members, many dozen businesses – several of which have had successful up and outs.
Amber: I would love to now about some of those or at least one.
Alex: Let’s see, we have SafeChain which is bringing Blockchain to the residential title realty business. They got an investment from Steve Case, Founder of AOL, who is pushing a venture fund for startups in the Midwest which he calls Rise of the Rest. We have Tom Burden of Grypmat, he was on Shark Tank a few months back.
Amber: I saw that.
Alex: Actually got a joint investment by Lori, Sir Richard Branson and Mark Cuban for his product which helps people work on their cars, jet engines. It’s a mat to hold your tools without damaging the surface of your vehicle and it can even stay on the side of a sloping wing.
Amber: Well Alex, what is the vision for Columbus Idea Foundry – into the future.
Alex: A place like the Columbus Idea Foundry can bring tools and resources and community to creative and technical people here in the city and that works well for a city like Columbus or Boston or Austin or Portland or I dare say any city in what we’ll call the developed world. But there are many other folks who are just as talented, they just have less opportunity. Steve Case likes to say talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. In India for example, the average disposable income for a family per month is $35.00, so it’s going to be hard to afford a $1,000.00 laptop – which can give you access to the internet, crowd funding, design tools; everything that allows us to be empowered these days.
Amber: A community
Alex: Absolutely, absolutely. So these clever social entrepreneurs designed a phablet. It’s a phone and a tablet – it’s a funny word.
Amber: I like it.
Alex: It costs $70.00; you can make phone calls, download software, watch YouTube. The state of India was so impressed they subsidized it 50%. So every student for the next 5 years will get this $35.00 phablet. There is a device called the Gravity Light, which is a high gear ratio motor you hook on the ceiling. You suspend a bag of rocks or sand underneath it and you lift it up, gravity pulls it down and it generates clean light and electricity. You also have Google with a program called Project Loon or Facebook with the Project Aquila. These are plans to – it sounds Sci Fi – beam Wi-Fi to the planet in the next 5 to 10 years.
Amber: I find nothing sounds Sci Fi to me anymore.
Alex: I know, it’s an exciting world; really fun stuff.
Amber: This is why we love what we do, because we get to talk to people like you and hear about all of these things happening across the world.
Alex: Once you’re engaged with people what found their passion I think that’s a lot of fun. But if you string those three things together – cheap, browse-able devices, cheap electricity and access to the web – I think we can see a way where rather than all of our products of value – cars, software, phones, computers – being created by a tiny pie slice of the total global talent I think 20 to 30 years from now you can see a planet of 10 billion empowered and educated innovators. And I think that’s going to be happening at a time when automation and robotics are going to be taking a lot of jobs that are being operated right now. So I think 20 to 30 years there will be an interesting showdown between the loss of jobs that might happen from automation and robotics and the capacity to educate and empower everyone in the world. And that’s a place I’d like to live so that’s our mission we’re trying to spread.
Amber: Excellent and good luck on that, we’ll be watching closely.
Alex: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
Amber: And maybe we’ll catch up with you in a couple of years.
Alex: Look forward to it.
Amber: Thank you so much Alex.
Alex: Any time.
Amber: Once again this is Amber Ambrose, Alex Bandar of the Columbus Idea Foundry and this is BusinessMakers USA.
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