Space for innovation: Entrepreneurs turn ideas into businesses

Jon Maraschin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center, watches a three-dimensional printer at work at the GJ Makerspace in the center. Printers, computers and other equipment are available to help entrepreneurs develop and test ideas. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
Jon Maraschin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center, watches a three-dimensional printer at work at the GJ Makerspace in the center. Printers, computers and other equipment are available to help entrepreneurs develop and test ideas. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Jon Maraschin knows well what happens when entrepreneurs gain access to equipment and counseling: They start and expand businesses.

But the secret sauce, Maraschin says, is the collaboration that occurs whenever ideas are discussed, experiences shared and, in the end, businesses made even better.

“That’s magic. That’s what we do down here and see everyday,” says Maraschin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction.

Envision the magic, then, that happens when entrepreneurs, engineers, artists and other inventive people have access to three-dimensional printers, computers and electronics to develop and test new products and services. They collaborate with each another, but also local educators and manufacturers.

Maraschin believes there’s potential for a growing facility at the Business Incubator Center dubbed the GJ Makerspace to not only spawn new businesses and jobs, but also promote economic development in making the region a more nurturing home for innovation and high-tech industries. “That’s a really big deal for us and makes a lot of sense.”

The GJ Makerspace hasn’t yet been open a year, but has grown rapidly in terms of both the number of people who use the facility and scope of what’s offered there.

The idea all along, Maraschin says, was to create an innovation center that helps turn ideas into businesses and jobs. Moreover, the GJ Makerspace fits in well with the variety of other resources offered at the Business Incubator Center that include low-cost space, business counseling and financing.

The GJ Makerspace offers access to what Maraschin considers three essential things: three-dimensional printers that can be used to quickly and inexpensively build plastic prototypes of various products and devices, computers loaded with three-dimensional modeling software and the equipment and tools necessary to fabricate microelectronic components.

Assistance with using the equipment is available from people who use the GJ Makerspace and share part of their time and expertise on a volunteer basis, Maraschin says. Assistance and instruction also is available from professors at Colorado Mesa University and Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction. In addition, manufacturers also can offer assistance in developing prototypes.

“It’s a community collaboration,” Maraschin says.

GJ Makerspace members pay $25 a month for access to the facility during operating hours that run from 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays. For a $50 monthly fee, members enjoy unlimited access to the facililty. Members receive discounts for volunteering.

The fees were purposely set far lower than what’s charged at similar facilities elsewhere to encourage the use of the GJ Makerspace, Maraschin says.

About 25 members pay to use the GJ Makerspace, Maraschin says. But as many as 60 people have attended demonstrations to learn more about the facility.

Many of the members are young, Maraschin says, including teams of high school students developing robots for competitions.

But entrepreneurs also have used the GJ Makerspace and have launched businesses offering everything from robotics and explosives detection to three-dimensional modeling and energy efficient design, Maraschin says. The facility also has been used to create prototypes, including the hooks used by a Grand Junction-based company for its unique storage systems for cookware and other items.

The GJ Makerspace has grown in other ways, in particular the physical size of the facility. While the Business Incubator Center initially set aside about 1,200 square feet for the GJ Makerspace, the use of additional rooms soon will triple that amount, Maraschin says.

One new room will accommodate another piece of equipment Maraschin hopes to soon acquire — a laser cutter and engraver. The machine will offer precision cutting and engraving of metals, woods and other materials, he says.

The City of Grand Junction added to its financial support of the GJ Makerspace with a contribution of $12,500 to help purchase the laser cutter and engraver. With other donations, more than $17,000 has been contributed toward the $30,000 purchase price.

Maraschin expects the GJ Makerspace program to expand in still other ways. In collaborating with the John McConnell Math & Science Center, Maraschin hopes to soon bring a makerspace to the Business Incubator Center satellite office in Fruita. “We’re really close to making that happen.”

There’s also the potential to combine the GJ Makerspace in Grand Junction with an affiliate program offered to home-based businesses that need space for a meetings or access to high-speed Internet services.The program should work especially well for computer programmers, videographers and Web site developers, Maraschin says.

“That’s exciting,” he adds. “That’s going to be a really cool thing.”

In addition, the GJ Makerspace will fit into plans to offer what’s called an accelerator program at the Business Incubator Center to get businesses up and running in only six months.

The overall goal, Maraschin says, is to spur economic development through the creation of new businesses and jobs.

There’s an opportunity, he says, to change perceptions and promote the Grand Valley as a place that encourages innovation and offers a good location for high-tech companies to do business.

For more information about the GJ Makerspace, visit the Web site at www.gjmakerspace.org. For more information about other resources offered at the Business Incubator Center, log on to www.gjincubator.org.