[Startup Hatch] Workbench Projects: how this makerspace spurs creativity, skills and a bit of magic


[This article is part of the YourStory series Startup Hatch, about incubators, accelerators and makerspaces in the startup ecosystem. See earlier profiles of incubation and acceleration initiatives at IIT Bombay, IIM Bangalore, BITS Pilani, NCL, Tata Elxsi, Axilor, NID, IIIT-Bangalore, IIIT-Hyderabad, Vellore Institute of Technology and PSG Coimbatore. ]

Workbench Projects (WP) is a Bengaluru-based makerspace, a cross-disciplinary platform for the public to toy with ideas, tinker with tools and machines to prototype and build for the future. Located at the Halasuru metro station, its initiatives in ‘responsible innovation’ include the ‘Girls Gone Tech’ programme for schoolgirls.

WP has partnered with CMRIT engineering college in Bengaluru, and provides a digital fabrication facility as well as patent filing advice. It offers workshops on sustainable tech, and has curated the Enable Makeathon along with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Association for People with Disability. As a recognised FabLab by Fab Foundation, Massachusetts, WP hosted the very first Mini Maker Faire in India in association with NASSCOM.

Pavan Kumar

Co-founders Pavan Kumar and Anupama Gowda join us in this interview on the WP story. Pavan has a background in engineering and is a facilitator for makerprenuership. Anupama has been an arts educator for nearly a decade, and received the Charles Wallace India Award, UK, Fellow at ARThink South Asia, GI/MMB, Delhi-Germany. She also serves as Managing Trustee of a not-for-profit organisation called Yuva Chintana Foundation and is on the Board of Nrityagram, an internationally acclaimed Odissi Dance Gurukul.

Anupama Gowda

YS: What was the founding vision of Workbench Projects, and how is it supported?

WP: Our founding vision holds the same till date, which is, ‘To put the power of innovation in every hand’. WP is registered as a Private Limited Company by two founding Directors; Anupama (formerly Anupama Prakash) and Pavan. The company is self-funded.

WP provides tools, machines and in some cases on-demand mentors. Besides being a makerspace, it double folds into being a co-working space too for individuals and startups. A small conference room and a café are tucked into the facility offering.

As part of skills offering, we run initiatives under several tracks. We have dedicated two days in the week that allows interested individuals to sign-up and walk-in for trainings on machines, for example, 3D printers, laser, CNC and wood working. We also run specially designed workshops under Maker Weekend, a fortnightly offering on varying topics for a cross section of the demographics on topics such as vertical gardens, tinkering with Arduinos and even bicycle maintenance.

We also write proposals to tap into CSR funds and other grant-making bodies to initiate some of our own flagship programmes. One such example under skilling has been a project that was funded by Intel called ‘Girls Gone Tech’. This project was conceived, facilitated, and administered by WP, where we worked with 1,200 young girls between grade five to eight to undergo training in circuitry and programming.

YS: What's a typical day or weekend like in your makerspace?

WP: Weekdays are quiet and members generally stay focussed on their work. Weekend activities could be a closed-door corporate event, open hackathon, a talk, meetup, or Maker Weekend. On weekdays, we soak in our ideas, projects and work; on weekends we bring the world into our space to get a flavour of us. Weekdays walk-ins do continue without any hindrances.

We have an architect working on prototyping a product undergoing patent process; a fintech startup; product design team; a film maker, and student members who are currently on board.

YS: How have you helped participants move from hobbyist to maker to entrepreneur? 

WP: We have for example Abdul Thameem, an architect by day and a passionate researcher, engineer and above all a maker through the night and weekends. He has been working and prototyping to build a tidal wave energy harvester for houses on the coastal belt of Pondicherry.

YS: What is the profile of the managers of your makerspace?

WP: We have a space supervisor, systems engineer and a research collaborator besides the two founders. All five of us operate as space managers and play our designated role based on situations and availability. Three staff members have masters in engineering – two from mechanical and one from embedded systems. The other two are from an arts background. All of us nurture the ‘maker’ in us and hence trained ourselves to be managers as well.

YS: What activities and support do you provide for social entrepreneurs and NGOs?

WP: Given our commitment to responsible innovation, we always have a soft spot for social entrepreneurs and NGOs. We do provide consultation, facilities and other services as seen fit at a modest fee unlike the usual memberships. There have been instances where we have worked with government school teachers in helping them build classroom resources free of cost, thus encouraging far more teachers to become innovative.

As our commitment to foster the teaching community, this summer we will be running a 15-day immersive exercise for arts teachers across Karnataka to come and build for their practice. This can include theatre teachers who may want to explore digital fabrication for set design, to music teachers who may want to experiment on making out of the box musical instruments.

YS: What would you say are some key opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs in this space?

WP: In the hardware and product space, it would be bringing the next billion to the digital age with relevant gadgets; customisable machines and making them available in each household (3D printer, laser, CNCs as desktop offerings) due to the demand of customisation; and definitely the sensors industry that wants to connect everything online to monitor, analyse and make predictions.

Over and above this, we endorse and promote people working on diverse ideas with a lot more attention to being responsible towards our planet, the people, and the future.

YS: How closely are you working with educational institutes, and what can be done to get them more interested and involved?

WP: Schools and other academic institutions are of primary interest to us. We have a flagship programme called Girls Gone Tech, as mentioned earlier. We run a programme called ‘Make a Maker’ where students are encouraged to take to their interests, be it mechanics, wood-working or robotics. These are project-based engagements and are individual centric programmes.

We are working on a day-long engagement for a group of school principals and senior teachers on being a maker for classroom excellence. We engage engineering students who come to intern at the space, and promote cross-disciplinary work.

YS: What are some ways in which large corporates and tech providers can get involved with makerspaces?

WP: We help corporate folks get a sense of personalised innovation and experience the joy of DIY to get them back to their daily deliverables with a fresh perspective. They run their sessions, workshops, talks, hackathons, makeathons and more at our space, thus paying for the infrastructure and the association. Getting them immersed in the makerspace is magical, and we help them come up with unique offerings that suits their requirement.

YS: What are some key trends in the maker movement today?

WP: The top three trends are drones, IOT, and anything that is hands on making as a DIY. Popular tools are the CNC laser, 3D printers, and other power tools.

YS: What are the most common misconceptions that people have about makerspaces?

WP: The misconceptions about makerspaces are many, for example people think they do not exist in India, makerspaces are only hobby spaces, makerspaces are unorganised, anyone with a room and a bunch of hand tools can call themselves a makerspace, people work on only basic projects like Arduinos to turn on a light, makerspace operators have day jobs and cannot sustain doing this fulltime, makerspaces are not profitable – the list goes on!

YS: What are the key challenges faced by makerspaces in India, and how can they be overcome?

WP: Given that makerspaces in India fall between the gaps of academia and practice, people are often unable to ascribe a value to them, in terms of certification or placements. These two primary factors hinder youngsters voluntarily taking to makerspaces. There is a lot more to do at the advocacy level which is another set of problems given that the top level administration have limited understanding of the merits of makerspaces.

On the other side are working professionals who believe that India has a large number of labourers (regardless of whether they are skilled are not), and any manual job could be commissioned at a meagre price. This has made working professionals tinker less and less with ideas.

The DIY culture brings up a new set of challenges among young working professionals. It calls for a well-planned active engagement with a cross-section of demographics. Makerspaces have to proactively begin conversations and create conditions for all kinds of makers. In fact, it is not about creating a fly-by fanciful ‘want’ to engage in these spaces, but creating a ‘need’ for all stakeholders to actively participate and continually sustain the stickiness for the joy of creation and innovation.

YS: What kinds of IP are being created by your makers? What assistance can they get in this regard?

WP: Most often the products that get created are open source. But there have been a couple of IP-based products for which we sign an NDA with the maker. We connect our members to IP lawyers in our network for flow blown IP or provisional IP. From interactive devices to renewable energy, there are a few IPs under progress.

YS: How would you differentiate your makerspace from the other makerspaces in the field?

WP: We are one of the first movers in this segment. We have outreach programmes to sign up members that work on impactful projects. The team is focussed on bringing more diversity to the space. We bring relevant platforms and programmes through a robust proposal writing team that is always on the lookout for a great plug-in for our space. We constantly look into our own backyard for motivation and inspiration to make and to promote making.

YS: What would you define as success for your makerspace?

WP: Success is very simple for us; we strive to create more makers, who in turn work on impactful projects that revolve around our theme of responsible innovation. Success will lie in consistency and awareness of our demographics, local support systems, infrastructure and directions to scale and evolve.

YS: What are your recommendations for Indian policymakers to make business easier for makerspaces and startups in India? How would you connect to initiatives like Make in India, Startup India, and Skill India?

WP: Before Make in India or Startup India, Skill India resonated with us the most. And we always say even before Skill India, we have to look at Tinker in India, Explore in India, Experiment in India, and so on.

The recommendations to policy makers will be to start looking at Makerspaces as Companies and Social Ventures to make provisions accordingly to benefit the spaces – just the way Science Museums and Tech Parks benefit by schemes and policies. This includes tax credits, reduction in incorporation fees, RoC relaxation, grants and loans, accreditation, IP fee relaxation, incubation, and acceleration permissions.

YS: What support would you give those who want to set up makerspaces in their own cities?

WP: We would like to setup an alliance for makers in India to ensure there is a committee and a body available for such spaces coming up. Also perhaps generate enough capital or fund to ensure there is sufficient funding that can be made available for worthy applicants. For now, we just become consultants and offer as much as possible from our end to help them get started.

We are always running joint programmes with other makerspaces, hosting exchange programmes and celebrating makers by info exchange and promotions.

YS: What are your recommendations to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?

WP: Makerspaces are great diverse places to hire talent, get acquainted to new projects and technologies, and build a network of multi-disciplinary individuals. These are also the spaces that break barriers around age, gender, experience and disciplines, and are the go-to place for some magic waiting to happen!