Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making it... with a little help

Makerspace gives new enterprises a hand up

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The floors are bare concrete in the third-storey space of a nondescript Adelaide Street warehouse building in the west Exchange District.

Over the last few months, three Winnipeg entrepreneurs and about 30 volunteers have built several rudimentary rooms with chipboard walls, hired an electrician to wire the place and hauled in about $250,000 worth of manufacturing equipment.

Welcome to Winnipeg's first makerspace, called AssentWorks.

It's the brainchild of Michael Legary, the 31-year-old owner of Seccuris, a successful information technology security company.

Over the last year, he recruited Kerry Stevenson, former chief technology officer of Great-West Life, and David Bernhardt, an industrial designer, to be fellow directors.

With Legary's own money and without financial assistance from any public sector entity, they have built a space at 125 Adelaide that could become a hotbed for the kind of entrepreneurial activity for which this city is supposed to be famous.

For those unfamiliar with the term "makerspace," it is a location where people with common interests in product development, inventions, technology and any number of production disciplines can meet, collaborate and access equipment they wouldn't likely be able to afford on their own.

"AssentWorks will be a gateway for inventors, part-time hobbyists, creative folks to break into the real manufacturing world," said Legary. "It will allow access to a wider set of skills and tools that they otherwise would not have access to."

This kind of grassroots community concept is in existence in makerspaces in cities all over the world.

Legary, who was one of Ernst & Young's entrepreneurs of the year in 2010, has been to many of them around the world.

The idea is members pay between $50 and $100 a month to use the facility and the equipment. Various experts and advisers will be on hand to assist in the operation of the equipment and to collaborate.

"It operates like a health club, where you get access to the machines 24/7," said Stevenson. "But instead of treadmills and elliptical machines, there's plasma cutters, CNC (computer numerical control) machines and 3-D printers."

Stevenson is an expert in 3-D printing and Bernhardt is one of the designers of the Urbee car, an electric-ethanol hybrid vehicle.

"One of the things I've noticed is that when entrepreneurs are getting started on a project, they might go out and spend $15,000 to $30,000 up front on the tools just to build a prototype," Bernhardt said. "With no sales at that point, they are almost doomed from the beginning."

AssentWorks has a relatively new CNC machine that was purchased from just such an entrepreneur who hoped to make aluminum iPad covers, but could not generate sales quickly enough to afford the equipment.

Now he will have access to the machine at AssentWorks and will coach others in its operation.

Legary, a passionate entrepreneur, has used his own money to get the non-profit organization to this point -- the official opening is later this month.

But in time, the hope is that established entrepreneurs will eventually sponsor AssentWorks.

That may come in the form of helping to fund acquisition of new equipment, or even the donation of used equipment. So far the only official sponsors are Seccuris and the Eureka Project, the business incubator at the University of Manitoba's Smartpark.

Legary has been pitching the idea for about a year and was trying to round up five core sponsors at $25,000 each.

That hasn't happened yet, but AssentWorks' directors say they are confident it will.

The homemade spirit includes the strategy of not even appealing to the public sector for support until the model is up and running and the benefits can be seen.

That's not to say AssentWorks is not on plenty of radar screens already.

Ron Koslowsky of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters is fully briefed on what's going on in the Adelaide Street warehouse.

"I think it is a wonderful concept," Koslowsky said.

"This will definitely be one of the bright spots for Manitoba going forward. I'm excited about it."

If the energy Legary, Stevenson and Bernhardt have for the project is sustainable, it can't miss.

""The cash flow requirement is about $4,000 per month so we need about 40 or 50 members to break even," said Legary. "If we can't do that in Winnipeg, then we have a major drought of entrepreneurial spirit."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2011 B6

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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