(Photo courtesy of NextFab)
When the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia released the World Class business growth agenda a couple of years ago, it emphasized strengthening entrepreneurial networks as a crucial component of spurring more robust startup growth in our region. This focus came out of recognition that while our region has been rich in entrepreneurial support organizations, a dynamic and highly networked community of entrepreneurs has been a — if not the biggest — limiting factor for growth.
Philly Tech Week is as good a time as any to ask if our region’s maturing tech community has a current exemplar for strengthening entrepreneurial networks. The answer lies at NextFab, the bustling makerspace in South Philadelphia and at its new satellite location in Kensington. NextFab, a “gym for innovators,” which provides access to state-of-the-art fabrication and manufacturing equipment on an affordable membership model, is home to our region’s strongest example of a rapidly forming network of entrepreneurs.
Here are three reasons why NextFab is a model for advancing the critical priority of strengthening entrepreneurial networks in our region:
1. NextFab is home to a diverse and rapidly growing creative community.
NextFab members get access to an impressive array of advanced equipment — including 3D printers, laser engravers, water-jet cutters, pick-and-place electronics and high-end design software — along with technical training that otherwise might be out of reach. The result is a fascinating range of activities and users — from artists engaged in small-scale production to startups developing prototypes for new products to amateur hobbyists and weekend warriors working on whatever they please.
Membership now tops 500, there’s a 25-person full-time staff of engineering and design experts and 1,500 people take NextFab classes annually.
What’s truly special about what’s going on at NextFab is the open and collaborative community of entrepreneurs and innovators that has gravitated to the space. Area college students focused on material sciences and technology want to be there, and universities and professors are starting to use memberships. There’s even a local federal research center (that will go unnamed) using NextFab because it provides more flexibility than their facilities.
2. It’s becoming a magnet for startups.
Six startups are part of NextFab’s resident incubator program and one — smartphone DNA analysis firm Biomeme — has already graduated. Current incubator firm BioBots, which makes 3D bioprinters that use living cells as their building blocks, won accolades at South by Southwest last month and is in the hunt for first-round funding. An additional 12 startup companies work out of NextFab without formally participating in the incubator program.
3. The broader business community is coming to NextFab for solutions.
NextFab’s creative and skilled staff has started to secure contracts from major corporations like GE to work on prototyping and other projects. Not only are these firms seeking solutions to specific challenges — they want to be part of the NextFab community. Similar to what the Philly Game Forge has become for video gaming, NextFab has become a local talent magnet and solution factory for creative makers and technologists.