The Maker Movement Makes a Mark


When most people think of the startup community in Raleigh and the Triangle, their minds typically gravitate toward the IT/Technology industry and more specifically Software, SaaS, and Mobile sectors.  While IT/Software will always remain a top cluster within our community, the Maker Movement is beginning to emerge as one of our fastest growing clusters in the Greater Raleigh market. Over the last five years, Raleigh and Wake County have transformed from a fledging community of product entrepreneurs with little to no available resources to an emerging and fast growing region for creators and makers. Raleigh is home to a wide variety of maker industries including clothing and apparel, food & beverage, sporting goods & outdoor products, furniture & home goods, IoT & wearable tech, UAV, and biomaterials, just to name a few. Raleigh's creative class continues to grow as a whole, adding to an engaged and sustainable economy. 

Also, to a diversity of industries, a variety of startup spaces and resources for makers have come into existence over the last several years. The types of spaces available range from urban loft-style coworking spaces for designers and creators to on-campus maker labs for student entrepreneurs to full blown workshops with all of the necessary equipment to build the first prototype.  In total, there is over 40,000 SF of maker spaces existing or under construction. In addition, there is another 100,000 SF of startup space that houses designers, developers, product entrepreneurs and the accompanying talent that helps to feed into the region's maker economy. Alongside spaces, we have seen an uptick in local capital available for product startups, including angel investors, seed & early stage investment funds, and corporate venture groups, such as Seventh Generation Ventures.

There are also a number of collaborative partnerships and initiatives within our university and community college system that help to support the local maker economy. NC State, as a key example, offers a variety of resources including low-tech programs. These programs include food & fermentation science initiatives, to focus on shelf stable foods and craft beer, the luxury goods group, which concentrates on the fashion community, as well as high-tech partnerships such as the ITRE @ NC State, which targets UAV technologies (aka Drones), and the NSF ASSIST program, which specializes in supporting wearable technologies and the Internet of Things. Also, Wake Tech, our community college partner, recently opened the Advanced Manufacturing Center, as a workforce development tool to assist with our growing maker industries. 

In my opinion, the future is bright for maker startups in Raleigh.  Not only do we have a variety of resources, spaces and partnerships in existence or under development to help support the local maker community, but NC State also houses the PowerAmerica Advanced Manufacturing Institute, which is a $140 Million partnership backed by President Obama and the US Dept of Energy. The mission of PowerAmerica is “to develop advanced manufacturing processes that will enable large-scale production of wide bandgap semiconductors, which allow electronic components to be smaller, faster and more efficient than semiconductors made from silicon”. Bottom line: We are at the ground level of new technologies and new industries that will be born out of our local market, and there is no better time to call Raleigh home. 

Aly Khalifa, a design innovation entrepreneur and founder of Designbox in Raleigh, gave his experience of the Maker Movement in Raleigh. Read on to hear about his story. 

Having enjoyed Raleigh and the Triangle for the past 30 years, I have been fortunate to witness a tremendous amount of change. Having graduated engineering and design schools here, I have watched many creative colleagues venture elsewhere, but a fair amount stayed and developed highly productive careers. With more than 100,000 college students in the area,  we see that repeated every year. This raw and excited talent continuously adds energy to our inventive culture.

A group of us founded SPARKcon to help jell the creative ecosystem loosely based on Richard Florida’s work. We focused on the essential elements of Technology, Arts, Independent Business and Inclusivity. Utilizing an open source organizational model, we quickly grew to 75,000 attendees without advertising. The success of SPARKcon is uniquely founded on featuring local talent, produced by the community for the community. SPARKcon now helps lead an entire month of festivals and has become an ideal talent scouting venue. Its success is compelling because it illustrates some key differences of the kind of innovation that can happen here.

Creative thinkers are by definition discontent. It is impossible to think up new ideas if you are truly satisfied with everything around you. The curse of a creative person is that they cannot simply turn off their sensibility outside of their work life. The same person generating new types of web interfaces at work must also make choices about what they wear and what they use in life. Usually, that leads to some frustration of what is missing. In most places I have been to, the trail goes cold right there. But with the collaborative atmosphere and wide variety of expertise in this area, folks with a burning idea can quickly connect with the right people to get inspired towards a new design. 

We meet many of these folks at our studio, Designbox, and can usually help or point them towards a variety of local resources to get involved and prototype their concept. Advances in software and digital manufacturing have significantly lowered the barriers to prototyping. Add in all the geeky technological innovation happening around here: from Life Sciences to Textiles to Open Source coding and you can quickly see how the Raleigh and Triangle are fomenting a new generation of entrepreneurs. The emerging lesson is that our growing maker movement is the connector between our creativity and the next generation of our businesses.


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