UNL Maker Space, Maker Club aim to create innovative culture on campus

Interest in UNL Maker Club's first meeting on Feb. 5 was so high they had to move it to a larger lecture hall to fit everyone. More than 200 people showed up.

Jay Carlson knows the power of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Three years ago, when he was an electrical engineering undergrad at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he also was a page designer at UNL's student newspaper the Daily Nebraskan. Every night, he would work with reporters, copy editors and photographers to design a visually appealing paper.

“I’m someone who has a left and a right brain, and I like to use both," Carlson said.

During that time Carlson got to work with creative individuals whose educational background was completely different from his own. Many engineering students don't get that chance, he said.

The same collaborative notions are in play at the Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC), a public/private research campus on Lincoln's old state fairgrounds, with a space that is dedicated to collaboration.

It’s called the Maker Space, and it will be built on Innovation Campus by this fall.

The 17,000-square-foot space, which will be on the first floor of the 4-H Building, aims to attract people from different backgrounds, said Dan Duncan, executive director of the NIC.

Duncan hopes to get people with backgrounds in architecture, woodworking, welding, art, design and more to work in the same space, creating "casual collisions" that could grow new ideas.

That space is tentatively set to have woodworking and metalworking tools, 3D printers, and digital weaving and sewing machines. There may even be lasers, a culinary space and a music studio.

The space will likely be open to the public, but visitors will have to pay for access and go through training before they can use the equipment.

In addition, an accelerator will be housed in the Maker Space.

“Nebraskans have a great capacity to build things,” said Terence Bowden, business accelerator director at NIC. Bowden, who is from Ireland, previously ran an accelerator at the Dublin City University.

Bowden says the new accelerator will compliment the existing startup scene in Lincoln. Rather than focus on software, like many startups in the Haymarket district, NIC will focus on hardware. The Maker Space will allow for entrepreneurs to build and test prototypes, and neither the accelerator nor the Maker Space will be limited to specific trades, Duncan said.

This shift puts hardware-oriented entrepreneurs in a much better position than before, says Shane Farritor, a professor of mechanical and materials engineering at UNL. Many angel investors fear investing in business ideas they may not be familiar with, so turning concept into reality makes pitching ideas much easier.

On UNL’s campus, Farritor is growing support for innovation through the Maker Club. The first meeting was held on Feb. 5 with more than 200 people in attendance. The group plans to meet periodically to tinker and develop ideas.

Judging by the excitement in the room, Farrior is energized for the future.

“I want (this to be so big we have) to have our club meetings in Memorial Stadium,” Farritor said.

Beyond gauging support, the Maker Club also aims to encourage different departments of UNL to work together on projects.

"There really isn't enough communication on campus," Carlson, who attended the meeting, said.

He feels that silence is holding some ideas back.

While searching for inspiration, Carlson—now a graduate engineering student—will sometimes grab a drink with a friend who works downtown and doesn't know anything about engineering, just to ask how'd they solve whatever problem he's facing.

"Sometimes they have really great ideas," Carlson said. "It goes to show that we can solve each other's problems."

In the meantime, the Maker Space is branching out by looking for investors willing to get involved in the project. Some have already pledged equipment and plan to volunteer.

“You can achieve a lot together,” Bowden said. “That’s my bottom line.”

Article by: Daniel Wheaton, Silicon Prairie News