At the corner of 4th and Fulton in downtown Troy, in what was formerly an OTB space on the ground floor of a parking garage, is now a workshop with metal and wood working machinery, racks of tools and parts, 3-D scanners and printers, and biotech equipment.
But organizers see it as part of something even bigger.
There are large-format photos of the space above -- scroll all the way up.
Laban Coblentz -- a former RPI official, currently a consultant to startup companies, and one of TVCOG's founders -- says plans for the makerspace first started to come together last fall, based in part on discussions about what he describes as "a central irony of this region": schools and colleges here are a good at attracting and educating talented students, but the area is not nearly as good at holding onto them after they graduate.
"The question was: How do you do that retention, how do you create a center of gravity that can really make it worthwhile for post university professionals to put down roots? And clearly it's one thing to provide those jobs. But even when you have those jobs... what about the quality of life, what makes them want to stay?"
So Coblentz reached out to recent college graduates from RPI and UAlbany and asked: What would help convince you to stay?
"The first answer was: We need more social activities. We've got great pubs and so forth, but there's not anywhere in the Capital Region that really provides a locus, a centralized sort of hub of activity that's both intellectually stimulating and attracts that kind of crowd. That was number one.
"Number two, which was much more concrete, was a makerspace. If there can be a makerspace in Brooklyn, or San Francisco, or wherever else, why not in Tech Valley? So, basically, we said, why not? Let's do it."
Less than a year later, the space is ready for a ribbon cutting May 6. But it's already up and running, with about 70 members who have found their way there through word of mouth.
How it works
The TVCOG space, with its large street-level windows, feels a bit like a tinkerer's garage mashed up with the showroom of a nerdy version of Sears. Wood and metalworking machines are lined up along one window. Another area includes computers and 3-D printing machines. A room in the back include a still-developing biotech section. Other rooms are jammed with tools and motor parts and little bits salvaged from junked machinery.
Here's the way it works: Memberships in the space start at $60 a month ($30 for students). Members can drop in during open hours to use the equipment to work on projects. But the space is also organizing classes on topics such as 3-D printing or hacks for simple, ultra-cheap computers. And, of course, either through hanging out working or the classes, there's also the opportunity to talk ideas and learn from other geeks.
In addition to the regular membership, there are also a "super user" membership ($100) -- that includes 24/7 access and a storage bin -- and day passes ($25).
"I feel like I've tapped an artery here," Coblentz says of the enthusiasm for the project, which has resulted in many offers of resources, equipment, and expertise. "The biggest challenge was, how in God's name are we going to harness all this energy? And we've managed. And I think that's a testament to the versatility of the crowd and the entrepreneurial spirit itself."
Coblentz figures starting up the space has been an approximately $90,000 investment. Initial support has come from a wide range of sources. The Rensselaer County IDA supplied some initial funding help to cover costs. Landlord David Bryce is providing free space for a year. And people have donated about $50,000-worth of equipment and other materials.
Another key part in getting the project moving quickly: The role of some experienced geeks and entrepreneurs, such as RPI alumni Tom Tongue and Bob Bownes, who had already been working on an idea for a Capital District Makerspace and folded that effort into TVCOG.
Coblentz says the startup costs of the not-for-profit space are disproportionate to what it will take to run it day-to-day. He says the space is already pretty close to covering its operational costs from memberships. And if they can snag additional sponsorships, which he thinks will happen, they'll be able to upgrade equipment and expand class offerings.
The vision for the space extends beyond giving geeks a place to work and collaborate. Coblentz says he also sees it a place for launching new ideas and companies. As he described one of his hopes for the space: "If you look at the empty spaces in Troy that exist now, that [in five years] you will see a lot of those empty spaces populated with companies or activities that come out of this effort, and I really think you will see that."
There are already a few small startup efforts working out of Tech Valley Center of Gravity. One of them is Vital Vio, founded by two recent RPI grads, Colleen Costello and James Peterson. The early stage startup is currently working on a prototype of an LED light fixture that uses a very specific wavelength of visible light to kill bacteria.
The idea, if it works out, scaled up: entire hospitals fitted with these fixtures, helping to cut down on hospital-transmitted infections.
"The space has been an awesome place for us," says Peterson. "We're no longer working at our kitchen table." He says the makerspace gives them access to tools -- such as a laser cutter -- that they can't justify the cost of, yet.
And in sticking around in the year since graduating, Peterson says the Capital Region has turned out to be an accommodating, supportive place for startups. "We found that everything we needed is here -- it was just having the avenues to find it."
Troy, right now
So if TVCOG works out, great. It's one (tiny) corner of the Capital Region. What happens when the ideas germinated there grow out of the space and look to put down roots? Is this area still the place?
"I get exasperated when the question even rises," says Coblentz, citing a "very funky arts/engineering/science" scene in the city that stretches from downtown businesses to gardening and composting programs to arts orgs. "I think the only thing that Troy lacks right now -- or the Capital Region -- is for the people who have been here a very long time to flip the on/off switch in their head and stop asking the question of whether it's going to make it. It has."
Tech Valley Center of Gravity
35 Fulton St
Troy, NY 12180
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