Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Exchange space a buzz of pure energy

Allows entrepreneurs access to equipment

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It doesn't look anything like a trendy tech startup or swanky downtown corporate head office, but you really have to see the AssentWorks/RampUp makerspace in the west Exchange.

David Chilton, the newest "dragon" on CBC's Dragon's Den, flew out to Winnipeg to do just that. (One of Chilton's Dragon's Den investments was prototyped at AssentWorks.)

Not quite two years old, the homemade, member-based makerspace now has close to $2 million worth of equipment in a 10,000-square-foot, third-floor warehouse on Adelaide Street.

Although it's member-driven, with in-kind contributions, the federal government came up with a $467,000 contribution earlier this year. Princess Auto was one of the original sponsors, providing an amazing range of workshop tools, and more private-sector sponsors are gradually coming forward.

One of its fundamental roles is to allow inventors and entrepreneurs access to equipment for rapid, cheap prototyping of new products.

At an open house Chilton attended this week there were all sorts of entrepreneurs, inventors, and hobbyists at work, while curious visitors looked over their shoulders.

There is nothing fancy about the place -- except perhaps the vending machines that offer stuff like duct tape, utility knives and even microprocessors -- but it is a buzz of pure energy.

"I wouldn't want to change it too much," Chilton said. "Yeah, it's nothing fancy but that's not what this is about. It's a workspace. It has to have that to get the right passion and energy. It's perfect."

Michael Lambeta, a third-year University of Manitoba engineering student, was designing (and actually producing) printed circuit boards as part of a student competition to build a satellite. He said the university does not have that kind of equipment available.

"He lives here," said Kerry Stevenson, one of the founding directors of AssentWorks, along with industrial designer David Bernhardt and Michael Legary, founder and owner of local digital security firm Securis.

Stevenson, a Winnipeg information technology veteran, is the author of one the most popular blogs on 3D printing on the Internet, Fabbaloo.com.

AssentWorks now has five 3D printers as well as a laser cutter, in addition to equipment that will make printed circuit boards from scratch.

Matthew Olson, a long, lean 23-year-old, said he spends between 20 and 80 hours a week at AssentWorks. His company, Home Snowboards, is just about to launch its first product line that has been prototyped and developed at AssentWorks (and the Composites Innovation Centre).

Olson swears by the benefits of having AssentWorks around.

Chilton has become a member of AssentWorks' growing fan base.

"I'm not in Winnipeg for business; I'm here to see this place," he said. "They have done a fantastic job of growth over a short period of time. It's very impressive."

Chilton has seen a few of these spaces (he said "they call it the makerspace movement") across the country and figures the AssentWorks/RampUp Manitoba space may be the largest in the country.

"That matters, because the more people who are collaborating and doing things and stealing and learning from each other the better," he said.

He figures it's also unique in that earlier this year, RampUp Manitoba, the budding entrepreneur consortium, merged with AssentWorks and put up its own homemade offices and meeting spaces in conjoining space.

"It's a mix you don't get in other ones," said Chilton.

Chris Johnson, one of the driving forces behind RampUp Manitoba, said there is plenty of synergy between the mostly high-tech startup guys and the prototyping centre.

"I personally have two products being prototyped right now," he said.

RampUp's "offices" are not much more than drywalled partitions from the workshop area, with some bare-bones computing, telephone and video equipment and the least-adorned boardroom in town.

There's 15 startups in the RampUp space and room for seven more. AssentWorks has 110 members.

Chilton said as great as the place is, marketing expertise and -- most importantly -- capital is required to get the products to market.

It's true AssentWorks/RampUp doesn't have a banking division just yet.

But Johnson said Chilton told him he'd be more comfortable funding someone from this space than one with fancy waterfalls in the office.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2013 B9

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