Madison's hardware-hacking celebrity Ben Heck teaches a class at Sector67.
That's a key question for central Madison's emerging tech scene. Sector67, founded in 2010 by UW-Madison mechanical engineering graduate Chris Meyer, has become a magnet for creative types to rub shoulders and trade advice while they work on their projects in a shared space.
Sector67 plays "a pretty important catalytic role in Madison," notes tech entrepreneur Preston Austin. "It's pulled together this really interesting concentration of expertise ranging from light industrial work to rapid prototyping of electronic gear."
"I don't believe anything else fills the niche that Sector67 does," he adds. Other tech watchers in Madison, who see the inventors' workshop as an essential ingredient in Madison's tech ecosystem, share Austin's assessment.
But the nonprofit, which recently marked its second anniversary, has reached a fork in the road. Jam-packed with tools (a 700-pound laser cutter imported from China is the latest addition), this former outsized garage is approaching physical capacity. But the membership of 50 hasn't hit the budget mark of 67. Operating revenue this year is a minuscule $60,000, and that means no pay for Meyer.
He sees the handwriting on the wall.
The landlord, the innovator-friendly Accipiter Properties (it runs the neighboring Winnebago Studios, the city's premier artist space), wants to redevelop the two properties. Sector67 is now on a rolling three-month lease, which translates to no security for a long-term operation.
Meyer wants to find a new site for Sector67. He'd like to bump up to 8,000 square feet from his current 4,200 square feet, and he wants to get closer to campus so he can draw more UW students and faculty as members. And - drum roll here - he wants to do that for cheap money.
That's no easy feat.
Mayor Paul Soglin, who has visited Sector67 a half-dozen times, loves the mash-up of 12-year-old kids working in the same room with Ph.D.s. "It's kind of what happened when the guys who loved hotrods met the computer nerds," he muses.
But the bucks required for a move to bigger and inevitably pricier property is a challenge. "Some of the alternatives they're looking at are more expensive than their budget," Soglin says. "What concerns me is that they're going to need some form of subsidy."
Sector67 is open to all comers. General memberships are $100 a month; full-time college students pay $50 and high-schoolers $25. If you want your own dedicated 8-foot-by-8-foot space with a desk, that's $200 a month. Otherwise members share space, tools and materials.
They have a tinkerer's paradise at their fingertips.
For the mechanically minded, Sector67 offers everything from welders to drill presses to sand blasters to an engine hoist. Electrical types can use the oscilloscopes and do soldering and circuit board etching with in-house tools. No less than 10 3-D printers are available. Novices can take low-cost how-to classes. Children's classes are offered too. (Home-schooling parents seem drawn to Sector67's hands-on approach.)
There's just a lot going on.
Meyer, 27, launched Sector67 with his winnings in student business contests. He's an unflappable ringmaster and easygoing coach. He conducts monthly business meetings (first Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m.) that are open to the public. The camaraderie and mutual support of the Sector67 crew is abundantly on display.
Members and walk-in guests are given seven minutes to describe their projects. The comments and questions that follow are curious and respectful. Advice, often sought, is offered freely. There is much laughter along the way and some beer drinking. Clearly, group bonding is going on.
This past Tuesday, retired Madison Gas and Electric manager Jerry Kieffer drew rapt attention as he discussed the intricacies of building a scale-model 1947 Harley motorcycle with - hard to believe - functional parts. (He answered "yes" when asked if it leaked oil like the real thing.) But the crowd of 40 was equally attentive when Colby Powers, a 13-year-old home-schooled student from Sauk Prairie, talked about the model racecar he built for a science competition. (His father, Eric Powers, is a leading advocate for hybrid and electric cars and uses Sector67 as his workshop.)
The range of projects discussed at these meetings is head turning. The April meeting, for example, saw a woman engaged in competitive aquarium contests seeking advice on how to set her climate controls to maximize growth. A group of Waunakee high school students, meanwhile, reported on a silent alarm clock they were designing for dorm residents that relied on electric shocks. (Yikes!) Then there was a guy trying to develop wheeled luggage that followed you around the airport. (The homing device appeared to take up a third of the suitcase.)
Some of this stuff seems almost whimsical, but other projects were commercially minded, and all of them fell into the great American tradition of tinkerers and gearheads messing with stuff and telling their friends about it.
There's a deep literature on creative spaces like Sector67. Most famously: MIT's Building 20, the Bell Labs and the legendary Homebrew Computer Club that helped catalyze Silicon Valley. At UW-Madison, David Krakauer is trying to unleash that creative juice at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.
Matt Younkle, who founded the cloud-based music storage and sharing service Murfie.com with Austin, thinks Sector67 has bottled the magic. He says when he was an engineering student at UW-Madison, "it was hard to walk into the lab and say, 'I have this great idea, and I want to build it.' That's the beauty of Sector67. It's a totally open door, and there are people there to help you turn your ideas into a prototype."
Younkle's assessment underscores why finding a new home for Sector67 is so important. The most logical site is in the city redevelopment zone known as the Capitol Gateway District. It contains many of the old industrial properties along the east rail corridor. Indeed, Meyer says he would love to relocate across the street from the two business incubators run by Commonwealth Development. The Metro Innovation Center, operated as a startup site by the University Research Park, is close by.
"I know a lot of what we're doing fits in well with what the UW is doing and hopefully with what the city wants in furthering the entrepreneurial spirit," Meyer says. Unfailingly upbeat, he adds, "I love it when someone takes the world by the ears and starts a business. Every day I get up I want to help someone do that."