Expanding and empowering: How NextFab evolved over a decade - Technical.ly Philly

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Jun. 21, 2019 3:29 pm

Expanding and empowering: How NextFab evolved over a decade

In honor of its 10th anniversary, we asked NextFab employees and members how they think the makerspace network has changed over the last 10 years.
The wood shop at NextFab’s 1800 N. American Street location.

The wood shop at NextFab's 1800 N. American Street location.

(Courtesy photo)

Ten years ago, Evan Malone founded NextFab as his “personal response to the financial crisis of 2008.”

At the time, Malone said that his idea was to help mostly technical makers with education and provide a resource facility. Looking at the unfortunate state of the economy and many people’s aversion to taking on student debt, Malone wanted to create a workspace or makers with an associate degree or less while changing people’s perspective on manufacturing.

“[I hoped to] reintroduce people to manufacturing as not dark, dirty, dangerous, but as more high-skill, adaptable, creative work and to kind of give manufacturing a makeover,” Malone said.

What started as Malone’s response to the recession just celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 12, is opening a (HUGE) fourth location later this year and started its own accelerator program to help local companies. Over the last decade, we’ve covered a lot of its successful makers and programs. So in honor of NextFab’s tenth anniversary, we asked employees and members how they think the company has changed over the last 10 years.

Take a quick time warp back to the company’s beginnings and you’d find a small, West Philly space with local technical makers working on 3-D printers, model rockets and even antique car replicas.

“I always wanted to work with cool new technology inventions or things that were somewhere between the boundary of art and science, or art and technology,” Malone said.

Flash forward a few years, and Malone decided to scale up his dedicated group of startup gurus and move to a new, larger facility in South Philly in 2013. With the growth, Malone also encountered many challenges that led to a change in leadership style to meet the new space.

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“All sorts of things broke because we’re a larger team, larger building, people didn’t see each other day-to-day,” Malone said. “And the net result is the kind of human relationships gathered from such a small team didn’t work anymore to glue it together. I had to kind of go back and fix the way you drive culture intentionally. … That was a huge learning curve for me.”

Luckily, Malone survived the curve and moved on to open up three more locations: NoLibs, Wilmington, and the newest 66,000-square-foot North Philly location (complete with 30 foot ceilings) on North American Avenue. Along the way, North Philly location manager Melissa Guglielmo said the company moved from a tech innovation focus to a more artistic and member-driven ideology.

“It wasn’t necessarily about making the next innovation all the time, and it was more so empowering anybody to make those changes for themselves,” Guglielmo said.

She credits this to the org’s change in retrieving member feedback. Instead of cold-calling members and asking them to fill out surveys, NextFab decided to start interviewing its members about what changes they would like to see.

Two people using a soldering iron

Making things at NextFab. (Courtesy photo)

Sharif Pendleton has been a member of NextFab since its opening week in 2009 when he was using the laser cutters for his first company, Masters of None. He has since gone on to form his second company, PLAID, bought memberships for his niece, nephew and intern, and continued his membership even after purchasing his own laser cutter.

“If I personified it a little bit, it’s sort of like a person that’s just come into their own and gotten to know themselves better,” Pendleton said. “From the beginning, I think the idea was, ‘Hey, we’re here and we’re going to be here for scientists,’ and I remember having a conversation with them like, ‘Are you crazy? When my artist friends find out you’re here they will never, ever leave.'”

This artistic direction developed NextFab’s new trajectory toward commercialization, where it now helps artisans not only make their products, but learn how to market them on a larger scale.

“Its gone from ad hoc to much more intentional,” Malone said. “We’re focusing on helping people commercialize their ideas. Artists are increasing their ability to get income for their artistic work and avoiding pitfalls and finding investment that’s right-sized for their stage.”

One of these makers is Jessie Garcia, founder of Tozuda, a head trauma impact sensor that helps with concussion awareness. She joined NextFab as a member in 2016, and was one of the pilot members of the RAPID Accelerator Program.

“If you know one machine, you can make money off of that, and that’s a really great livelihood and a skill set that you could repeat over and over,” Garcia said. “So, I really think it’s not only empowering like, ‘Hey, I can make this,’ but, ‘Hey, I can make a living off of this.”

Gear at NextFab.

Gear at NextFab. (Courtesy photo)

As for the next 10 years, Malone said that this shift toward helping local artisans commercialize their products is where he sees the company heading — especially considering its move away from education after many local schools began creating makerspaces of their own and inviting access to technology such as 3D printers.

“We’re pivoting increasingly towards accelerator programs, helping people realize their ideas [and] turn them into practical businesses or startup companies,” he said.

Guglielmo also wants to continue the all-around support NextFab offers its members.

“As you’re putting yourself out there as somebody who makes things,” Guglielmo said, “you’ll have a folder on your desktop about all the best moments you’ve had because you’re going to get so many rejections and so many moments of feeling low.

“We’re kind of that folder for people.”

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