Tampa Hackerspace provides a place to tinker

Would you like to make your own 3D printer, using a 3D printer? Build your own computer? Or work on a satellite bound for deep space? 

People at Tampa Hackerspace, a membership club/co-op tucked away on West Nassau Street near Jefferson High School in Tampa’s Westshore District, are doing just that.

“What we’re doing is just trying to enable people to be comfortable with technology,” explains Bill Shaw, who co-founded the non-profit Hackerspace with Ryan Holmes, and Jon Adair in 2013. “A lot of it is hardware focused.”

Unlike accelerators such as Tampa Bay WaVE, Hackerspace isn’t trying to grow businesses. “We’re probably mostly seeing people before they’re really on the radar for most of the other tech organizations,” he notes.

Instead, Hackerspace is a place for people to tinker, grow and collaborate. It’s a place where artists can mix with engineers, and develop their own unique creations. “Our biggest audiences are people who you’d characterize as hobbyists,” Shaw says.

It’s a place to explore your interests whether its aquaponics, robotics, the Internet of Things, wearable electronics, home automation, Bitcoin, sewing, remote-controlled aircraft, video and arcade gaming -- or a whole lot of other things.

Anybody can show up at 6 p.m. on most Tuesdays for Open Make Night, named after the popular musician’s open mike. Or they can attend a free Board Game night or free meetup. 

“Tuesday is the best attended evening of the week because it’s open,” Shaw says. They also can take classes on topics such as soldering and basic electronics.

At Hackerspace, members have access to tools like 3D printers, a laser cutter that can etch wood and leather, and a small vacuum former that can mold plastic. In general, tools more expensive than they could afford individually. Through a workshop in 3D printing, participants could even print their own 3D printer for some $550 of materials.

Hackerspace also is equipped with a tool shop, metal shop, soldering stations, coworking/classroom space, kiln and small kitchen, plus educational kits for children interested in LEGO robotics and more.

Those who want to build their own computers like people did in the 1970s, can take a free workshop to do that -- and pay just for the materials to build their own.

Miles Space: destined for deep space

In the process of tinkering, ideas gel. Concepts come to life. A good example is Miles Space, a company competing in NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge awarding $5 million to teams who produce qualified small satellites capable of functioning near the moon, and beyond.

Under the leadership of Wes Faler, a team has been hard at work at developing a satellite -- the size of two loaves of bread -- that NASA has chosen for a real space run. The date’s been pushed back twice; the target date for launch is December 2019.

“We’ve actually launched a business before we’ve been able to launch our satellite,” notes Shaw, who joined the team with an office down the street from Hackerspace.

It was awarded $20,000 in June 2017 when it became one of three teams chosen for the trip aboard Exploration Mission-1. The three will be competing for a share of that $5 million prize. 

Their goal is to get the satellite as far away from Earth as it can go, and still transmit data back. “We’re going almost to Mars in 200 days,” Shaw says.

Faler had been interested in plasma thrusters, an integral part of the project, since high school and college. “This [contest] was a stage for me to get my ideas out there,” he says.

Still, it took a bit of encouragement from his friend, Frank Fomby, who joined the team as senior engineer. 

“It’s opened the doors to a whole new career for me,” Faler says. “I’m going from software engineer to professional rocket scientist and professional commercialization engineer. That’s been exciting.”

Plus, he’s watched his friends, who approached him and asked to be a part of it, grow too. “We’ve had an unusual team structure,” he explains. “My friends have gotten to try everything they wanted to try.”

Another team member is J. Kent, owner of Tampa’s Jmaille Forge and Foundary, who worked on the logo and 3D marketing materials. “I’ve helped pretty much very step of the way,” he says. 

Kent considers this a “passion project.” “People really discount how much NASA has done for us,” he continues. “They don’t realize how much innovation comes from doing what people think we can’t do.”

Miles Space has gotten this far because its commitment to win, Faler says.

“We’re makers and we’re going to win this,” he says. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Their strategy involves looking at the contest like a game, following the rules and going for the biggest score and prizes regardless of the technology path.

Hackerspace has some 150 paid members who come and go as they want. It often draws members from its free meetup group numbering some 3,200. Among its regular events are NASA’s Space App Challenge Hackathon, an annual 48-hour international event it has brought to Tampa. The goal is to develop solutions for real-world problems on Earth and in space.

As president, Shaw runs meetings and represents the group at public events. But a team of seven Board of Directors are instrumental in keeping the organization running. That team includes Shaw and Adair, plus Alexander Wingeier, William Stillwell, Tracey Birch, Andrew Schreiber and Alan Chervitz.

“None of us are full time. None of us are employed by the organization,” Shaw points out.

Toy dinosaur captures attention

In addition to the tools and equipment, a recent tour of the space revealed a couple of dinosaurs, one of them Kent’s creation. It was inspired by a nightstand he saw that featured a dinosaur skull. He began making it three-feet in size, but instead opted for full size.

“She now lives here because she’s too big to fit at home,” he explains.

Kent designed the dinosaur from scratch using open-source software. “People see it and they really want to get attached to the Hackerspace,” he says.

A software engineer, David Redding of Lutz enjoys making toys out of wood, plastic and silicone. For a while he housed three dinosaurs that he’d made there too. “I don’t know what I’d do with a 12-foot tall dinosaur in my house,” he says.

He’s been to other maker spaces elsewhere, and he’s impressed by the quantity of materials and tools at Hackerspace. “It’s effectively a co-op industrial space for those of us that can’t afford to go out and buy those big pieces of industrial equipment,” he explains.

“It’s a good training tool,” he adds. “Plus it brings some of the most intelligent people of Tampa together.”

Hackerspace’s legal name is actually Inspiration Labs. “Hackerspace sounded cooler. We thought it was little more edgy,” Shaw explains.   

“In our parlance, Hackerspace doesn’t mean people who are breaking into things,” he adds. “Hacking for us is taking something and repurposing it in a way that was not originally intended.”

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune