FabLab: A chance for LI to get real

More than 550 FabLabs have been launched since the concept spun out of MIT in 2001.

By GREGORY ZELLER // An MIT-centric network bringing maker spaces to the masses may soon spread to Long Island.

Launched in 2001 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the FabLabs program now includes more than 550 high-tech maker’s-spaces in 50 countries. The NY FabLab Development Corp. is a registered 501(c)3 organization hoping to establish a FabLab somewhere on Long Island, and this week, it named toy-making attorney Todd Gordon as its founding director.

Todd Gordon

A graduate of Tribeca’s New York Law School and partner at Hauppauge firm Gordon & Juengst, Gordon has been a sort of regional FabLab ambassador. He’s also an experienced toymaker with an extensive consumer-products background.

One of his earliest positions was as a brand manager for a conglomeration of European toy manufacturers with U.S. subsidiaries, where he focused on licensing issues and product-development systems. His adventures in the toy industry also included creation of several popular products – credit him with Wuggle Pets and the Lil Luvables Fluffy Factory – and had him rubbing elbows with executives at Milton Bradley Co., Rubik’s Cube inventor Erno Rubik and other high-level toymakers.

Gordon hasn’t just toyed around: A five-time patent holder, he’s also credited with inventing various pet products, including a dental-care line that found its way onto Petco shelves. Those experiences bring him to the FabLab table “with a consumer-products perspective,” he noted.

“I also come from a background that says, ‘There’s ideation and there’s iteration, and product is king,’” Gordon said. “You can’t get going with just an idea. You have to iterate it. You have to have a prototype.

“A lot of what goes on in an innovation economy, especially on Long Island, involves ideas – things in the abstract,” he added. “Our feeling is, ‘Let’s make something real.’”

Which explains Gordon’s love affair with the FabLab network, a thriving expression of the global maker movement. The FabLabs operate as community outreach programs – they’re often located on college campuses – stocked with state-of-the-art equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters.

The idea is twofold, according to Gordon: Give resource-challenged entrepreneurs the ability to create what they’ve imagined, while providing hands-on training with the tools of 21st century innovation. Adding a global perspective through international networking – something most maker spaces cannot do – is a bonus, but the network’s real promise is in helping that inexperienced entrepreneur get off the ground.

“The whole idea here is providing a set of state-of-the-art digital-fabrication tools to the public, so if somebody has an idea, they can come in and make a prototype from which they can launch a business,” Gordon said. “And it’s a learn-by-doing experience – how to use computer-aided design programs or laser-cutting machines or hand tools.”

Granting public access to next-level digital-fabrication “lowers the bar of entry” to entrepreneurism, Gordon added, while the network’s top-shelf videoconferencing abilities bring the world – and hundreds of useful perspectives and ideas – to each lab facility.

“So if somebody on Long Island is trying to build something, they can communicate with somebody in Moscow or Istanbul or wherever and get help with a sticky design element,” he said.

Bringing FabLab to the Island is “quite an endeavor,” according to Gordon. MIT itself has very little to do with the formation of new chapters, leaving the legwork to grassroots organizers like the inventive attorney, who’s enlisted some help.

adriolo

Gina Andriolo

The NY FabLab Development Corp. has named attorney Gina Andriolo – executive director of the LibertyHealth Foundation, philanthropic arm of the Jersey City Medical Center – to its board of directors. Andriolo joins board member Stacy Chizzik, director of The League School, a Brooklyn-based private school and day-treatment center for children with emotional difficulties.

The Development Corp. team is facing a host of challenges, though paying for a Long Island FabLab isn’t a major one. Gordon noted CAD software donated to the MIT network by SolidWorks, a subsidiary of French developer Dassault Systèmes, and “complex” videoconferencing tech donated by San Francisco-based Cisco Systems, leaving an estimated price tag of only about $300,000 to stock a regional lab with the requisite printers and tools.

Gordon & Co. are already discussing those costs with “private donors,” the director said. The bigger challenge is locating the right physical space for the lab, perhaps in concert with an institutional supporter that might actually host it.

Between universities and other world-class research institutions, Long Island has several potential partners, though FabLab organizers are looking to meet specific criteria, starting with location. Gordon has already had discussions with officials at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Suffolk County Community College, and while nothing is close to decided, BNL – located off Exit 68 of the Long Island Expressway – may actually be “too remote” for the FabLab’s purposes.

“We want to position this thing so it has the best benefits for the regional community,” Gordon noted.

Scouting missions to Maryland and Rhode Island have shown the director that community college campuses tend to make the best FabLab homes, since “outreach programs like this really support their general initiatives and goals.”

Wherever it lands, the Long Island FabLab will, eventually, have to at least partially monetize itself to stay afloat. Options explored at other chapters include prototyping services for local industry and membership-based clubs, but however a hypothetical LI lab pays its bills, it must first get its feet on the ground.

Best case, according to Gordon: an up-and-running facility somewhere in Central Long Island within the next 18 months.

The director is very interested to see what sort of personality that lab adopts once it opens. Each individual laboratory in the FabLabs network seems to mimic its host region: The laboratory in Providence, a well-known theater and arts town, sees more woodworking and set-creation, Gordon noted, while in the Spanish city Barcelona, architecture is the main focus.

“I’m not certain what a Long Island FabLab would look like,” Gordon said. “But we’ll know soon enough.”