Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV coming to you today from TX/RX Labs. I’m very pleased to have as my guests Roland von Kurnatowski and Lauren Caldarera. Roland, Lauren, welcome to the show.
Lauren: Thanks Russ.
Roland: Thanks for having us.
Russ: So you’re Founder of the company and you’re Development Director?
Russ: Okay, tell us about TX/RX.
Roland: So TX/RX Labs is a makerspace located in the East End of Houston, Texas. We’re one of the largest makerspaces actually in the country. About 60,000 square feet of space that houses four different streams; innovation, job training, youth programs and community outreach.
Russ: Share with us the different categories of training and expertise you offer here.
Roland: We have a staff of about 20 currently – that’s actually soon to be growing – that covers all the different areas we work in; mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, rapid prototyping, welding, machining, woodworking, graphic design, industrial design. Those individuals teach classes to the public to allow them to access those skills for use in projects both for innovation and personal projects.
Then we also have those individuals teach classes for our youth programs. We run non-college, STEM tracked job programs for folks on the east end. And then those same individuals work during our job training and apprenticing programs where we use the fabrication work that we have available to us from all the innovation work and prototyping work that we do. And we feed that into our job training program to teach people critical STEM skills like CNC machining, welding and rapid prototyping.
Russ: Can somebody just walk in or do you have to make an appointment here? What do you have to do?
Lauren: Community members are welcome to TX/RX. We have about 600 classes a year that we offer and they’re all available online. So we ask people to go online, look at the classes that they want to take – especially if they’re interested in classes – and sign up and come in and start taking classes. And then we also as Roland said work with small businesses and legacy manufacturers who come in and say hey, I need this thing created or I need some overflow work done, and so many times people will just walk through the door.
Russ: So share with me what’s the domain?
Russ: Okay and it’s all there, well it’s very impressive. So are you open 8–5 or is it around the clock? What is it?
Roland: We’re actually open from 10:00am to 10:00pm. We find that folks actually don’t start to show up – they tend to go to their other jobs first, kind of check in, and then they head over here to do prototyping or other types of work and so we run from 10:00am till 10:00pm virtually seven days a week.
Russ: Okay, when you talk about prototyping do we actually have – there’s some huge engineering companies and oil and gas companies and construction companies in Houston, do they sometimes want to come up here and prototype because it’s easier to do it here than in house?
Roland: It’s actually very interesting. What we’ve found is that as companies get larger and larger the amount of prototyping work they can actually do in house seems to decrease for a couple of reasons. I think number one is that often they automate and create systems that are so complex that they actually end up stifling creativity. A great example is we did a prototyping of some buttons for Boeing; they’re for I think one of their most recent capsule kind of developments.
They came in and we laser cut those buttons for them in a day. That normal process would have been it goes through Procurement, it takes weeks or months to get all the procurement work done. And we‘ve done the same thing for Chevron, we’ve done the same thing for APS Plastics, we did the same thing for Marmen and so a lot of the work that we can do really can’t be done internally because it goes against the systems that they’ve set up. And so they need somebody outside or over the fence so they can throw the project over the fence and get it done.
Russ: This is a show that’s focused on business, we have lots of startups on the show, but also I’ve sort of been to other prior makerspaces that gave a go of it here in Houston and it seemed like it was hard for them to survive. It seems like you guys are doing quite well.
Roland: Yeah, we’re about to move in 2020 to a 303,000 square foot facility up the street because we’re kind of busting at the seams in this 60,000 square feet where we’re at. And we’re actually a nonprofit but we have been entirely self-funded for the past 9 years. So we’re definitely making a go of it as one would say. I think the difference between us and other makerspaces is everyone – it’s a little bit of an ecosystem kind of concept right?
People are always saying oftentimes you need an ecosystem to make things work, well the same thing happens with makerspaces. If you focus on one thing – if you just focus on innovation, or you just focus on job training or community outreach – oftentimes there’s not enough kind of depth there within one environment. And so we touch across all these streams and then we leverage those streams kind of to create enough density for us to sustain ourselves.
Russ: So you attribute part of your success to the multiple operational capabilities that you have?
Lauren: I would add to that that we’re really trying to redefine the role of makerspaces in communities that for a long time makerspaces were just places for hobbyists to go, but as Roland mentioned with the job training and the youth education and innovation arms that it’s becoming a one stop shop to really build a community well.
Russ: So it sounds like you really offer assistance to small and medium sized manufacturers, how do you grow that?
Lauren: I think one of the things that we are looking to do is really build a better ecosystem for small urban manufacturers in Houston. There isn’t something that really provides small batch manufacturers with the resource that they need to scale, so we are working to leverage funding both at the local level, but also state and national, to help bring additional resources to allow them to scale and build a stronger support for all of Houston‘s small urban manufacturers.
Russ: Say I’ve just got a woodworking shop at home but I don’t have quite the set up that you have here, could *I just come in and use it and benefit from it?
Roland: Yeah, we have kind of a number of different models. Number one is individuals can just come and use our facility kind of adhoc, they can sign up as members, come in for a day, use the tools or equipment for a project and then go back to their normal work environment. We also offer rental spaces, we have companies that are co-located here; robotics manufacturers, artists, machine shops. So those folks have their own kind of separate spaces but then they still can come use the equipment as well and we find that oftentimes for folks who are heavy users of the equipment the proximity is very important. That’s kind of why we’re expanding to a larger facility because we’ve run out of those type of spaces, there’s a long waiting list actually for them.
Russ: Impressive. Okay, take e back to the beginning; was it just you in the beginning?
Roland: No, in the very beginning there was a group of probably about 10 to 15 scientists, engineers and fabricators who met at a coffee shop once a month. We would get together, we would review projects, we would share tools kind of like bringing together problems that people are having and getting information about them. We said we needed to get some tools – shared tools and so we got a small closet over at the Caroline Collective, which was one of the first co-working spaces in town. And so it was maybe 75 or 100 square feet, we put some small (07:29 ???) and other equipment in there and people just started showing up.
I think one thing that people forget is that oftentimes you don’t need a massive, over-arching concept, sometimes you just need the resources people need and that will draw them. And so by providing those resources people just started kind of amorphously showing up and aggregating with us. And so we’d end up with companies, we’d end up with schools, we ended up with everybody using the facility and that grew to a 4,000 square foot facility up on Commerce Street right by Downtown. Then we outgrew that space about 5 years ago and we moved to the current facility where we’re at now and we’ve been expanding, kind of just adding additional buildings nearby until we were at about the 60,000 square feet we’re at now. But we’ve outgrown this area now and so we’re having to kind of jump ship and move somewhere else.
Russ: So when did you join Lauren?
Lauren: I joined about a year and a half ago.
Russ: And what attracted you to come in here and doing this?
Lauren: I think that it was something that had a lot of energy to it and it was growing and that there was really an opportunity to expand what we were doing for the East End community.
Russ: Before we wrap it up let’s take a step into the future, what‘s happening? I mean you’ve already mentioned the expansion, which is huge; anything else cool around the corner?
Roland: Yep. We‘re really focusing on our innovation partnerships and we just kind of completed a partnership with Marmen which is Berkshire Hathaway’s manufacturing arm, so we’re kind of one of their southern sites for innovation. They are one the founders of mHUB in Chicago and so they were looking for a southern site and so we’re partnering with them. And we’re working with other local companies like APS Plastics Manufacturing to kind of become more of a one stop innovation hub for them, and then we’ll be moving to a new facility in 2020. And we just started up our machinist training program, which will be 40 machinists over the next year, and we’re expanding that into wood working, welding and drone piloting and maintenance.
Russ: So here at HXTV we think Houston is unique. We think it’s a unique city with unique people that are make it happen people, but does the culture of Houston play a role here? Does it help?
Roland: For what we do actually it’s very significant. The thing that we really focus on is physical innovation and physical manufacturing, which Houston is a leader in. I think that’s one area that we forget to think about innovation and often it’s that Houston is full of machine shops, we’re full of mechanical engineers, we’re full of petrochemical manufacturers. We have raw materials, we have access to the ports, the Asian logistic networks. Those are they type of resources that really can make us a leader in physical innovation and I think that’s why Berkshire Hathaway has become a partner of ours because Houston is an amazing town to do physical innovation in and they focus on physical innovation.
Russ: So impressive. One more time before we go tell them the domain if they want to come in here and check things out.
Russ: Okay, thank you both so much Roland and Lauren, I really appreciate it.
Roland: Thank you so much.
Lauren: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Roland von Kurnatowski and Lauren Caldarera and this is HXTV.
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