Located in southeast Kansas, Independence is home to Fab Lab ICC, which is on track to be the world’s leading innovator in combining entrepreneurial mindset education with a fab lab maker space. The opportunities and impact the Fab Lab has brought to this rural community and its entrepreneurs are immeasurable, but can be better understood through some of its success stories.
What is a Fab Lab
A fab lab (short for fabrication laboratory) is generally a resource of “maker” equipment – from traditional construction tools to 3D printers – designed to foster innovation and invention among its users. In the case of Fab Lab ICC, the maker space and its equipment are accessible to members of all ages and walks of life pursuing all manner of creative projects, from hobbyists and crafters to teachers and students to earnest entrepreneurs and small business owners. It is equipped with a broad range of equipment to allow entrepreneurs and the general public to turn their ideas into a physical object.
Fab Lab ICC
Fab Lab ICC opened October 1, 2014, after a quick seven months of discussion between the ICC president and Jim Correll, now the director of Fab Lab ICC. After receiving a matching grant to purchase most of the start-up equipment, the Fab Lab set up shop in an available 8,000-square-foot building on campus.
“Correll realized that running the Fab Lab would quickly become too big for one person to manage. Finding a Lab manager with the right mindset and aptitude to learn to use the diverse technologies would be a tall and challenging order. He had previously met Tim Haynes, assistant librarian in the ICC library and knew instinctively that he was the right person for the job. Over the first three years, Correll and Haynes have become partners in the vision of growing the Fab Lab. Recently, a third staff member, Laura Schaid became the Lab’s Program Developer.
As the Fab Lab began helping people create tangible things, Correll started noticing the intangible benefits – the physiological impact on these newly initiated “makers.”
“In the beginning, our mission was to help people make things,” he said. “Now, we see our mission as improving the self-efficacy of all Fab Lab ICC users.”
Correll also discovered that this self-efficacy boost is especially beneficial to entrepreneurs and small business owners struggling to start or grow their businesses. By encouraging members to make prototypes or finished, marketable products in the lab and even create their own marketing materials, which some labs frown upon, Correll says, the entrepreneurs and small business owners developed a new sense of empowerment.
Further expanding on this link between a maker space and entrepreneurs, Fab Lab ICC offers educational courses to examine the entrepreneurial mindset and how to think and approach business (and life) like and entrepreneur.
The course curriculum is based on the book, “Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur,” co-authored by Gary G. Schoeniger and Pulitzer nominated author Clifton Taulbert.
“Taking the thoughts from the Ice House classes, what we’ve discovered in our three years of existence is a potential for entrepreneurship combined with the Fab Lab to increase the self-efficacy of not just individuals, but entire communities,” Correll said. “This may truly be the magic formula for achieving economic development and population growth in small rural communities such as ours.”
A Shining Example: Fab Lab Divas
One of many success stories to come out of Fab Lab ICC is the Fab Lab Divas. This company, the brain child of Fab Lab members April Whitson and Laurie Rutland, has hit upon a magic formula of their own – inspiring dozens of local women to unleash their inner “maker.”
Like all great ideas, the Divas’ concept evolved over time.
Originally, April and Laurie came to the Fab Lab with the notion of using the maker tools to reinvent classic board games to sell and promote family game time. While working with Jim to learn what each machine did and how to use it, they realized this is something all women should learn how to do.
They floated their idea of engaging other women to Jim and sought the Fab Lab’s support. Jim was ecstatic to see how the Divas’ concept aligned with the Fab Lab’s mission, and with his enthusiastic stamp of approval, the ladies launched an all-out campaign to share the fab lab experience with other women.
The Divas host classes in the Fab Lab throughout the year that offer women the opportunity to create Pinterest-like projects while learning how to use the technology in the lab. Most classes sell out quickly, and the Divas constantly get requests to teach more.
They are continuing to expand their offerings and just completed their biggest event to date, a full day of activities around the community. Called “Divas Day Out, Fabulous Fall Frolic,” this event included a maker project at the Fab Lab, a culinary class, fashion show and a trip to downtown Independence for a candle-making class.
When asked why they believe their classes have become such a success, April and Laurie explained, “The Divas Day Out is an abbreviation of our original idea – having a diva weekend that included an overnight stay. As working wives and mothers, we realize how important it is for women to set aside time for themselves. We see the Divas Day Out and classes as a way to replenish their spirit with some good old fashioned girl time. Of course, we hope they learn a new skill or spark of energy that will continue after the event.”
Looking to the future, the Divas hope to partner with the local Chamber of Commerce and Main Street organization to fulfill the idea of a weekend event.
The Divas are just one of many success stories Fab Lab ICC has produced in the last three years. The people who have benefited from the lab are diverse in many aspects, from their geography to their ages and whether their business was intentional or accidental.
Tim Voegeli came to the Lab from Wichita, Kansas, after he was told there was no one in Wichita (population 400,000) who could create a prototype of the product he wanted to manufacture. Voegeli had an idea to create a new kind of bicycle rim clip to aid in tire changes, and after learning the Fab Lab’s capabilities, he bought a membership. Within five weeks of joining the lab, he had 3D printed multiple copies his prototype, tweaked it and printed 50 final sets to distribute to a test market. This led Voegeli to create his Tubeless Solutions company, which has now grown to offer multiple products.
Jaden Roggow, a high school senior from a neighboring rural community and owner of J Engravings, drives 40 miles to the lab once or twice a week for his business. Roggow creates custom-engraved products such as drink tumblers – something he did as a gift for his mother that turned into a business. Lab manager Tim taught him how to use the laser engraver, and his finished products led to many word-of-mouth referrals in his home town and from the Fab Lab.
The Future of Fab Lab ICC
All the stories and learnings to come out of the lab in the last three years have generated unexpected interest and support. This has sparked the need for a facility and program expansion. With the help of private donations and a recently awarded federal grant, Fab Lab ICC will soon double in size. The expansion, expected to be completed next spring, will house more equipment and an “Entrepreneurs Bullpen,”an open collaboration space for entrepreneurs.
Gathering inspiration from the Divas, Correll and his staff are working on a new program geared towards women. With additional grant funding this program will be designed to help women become interested in entrepreneurial pursuits and gain confidence to start their own businesses.
Correll says Fab Lab ICC has only scratched the surface of its potential, but he firmly believes supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship is essential to the economic vitality of any community, and most particularly those in rural America. The beauty is, it can be replicated in any community. In fact, Fab Lab ICC has become a sought-after information resource for other fab lab startups across the country, and Correll and team have now packaged a “boot camp” curriculum to train others. In February 2018, they will offer “Community Boot Camp: How to Start a Fab Lab from Ground Zero,” at the Fab Lab ICC facility in Independence. Spots for the boot camp are limited, and registration information is available at www.fablabicc.org.
“We don’t want the magic of the fab lab-entrepreneurship experience to be our well-kept secret,” Correll said. “It’s truly a phenomena that is changing lives and whole communities, and we want to share it with the world.”
Author: Miranda Eastwood. Fab Creative Services.
Article also appeared on the National Main Street Blog