free to make

In my upcoming book Free to Make, I recount the varied journeys undertaken by different figures in the maker movement. In chapter 3, excerpted here, we meet Lisa Qiu Fetterman, who learned to solder, moved to China, and even contemplated selling a kidney while designing and developing her sous vide device, Nomiku.

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Lisa Qiu Fetterman did not think of herself as an inventor, per se, nor an entrepreneur. She did not know about makers, and she did not grow up considering herself to be one. She loved food and cooking, and that passion led her to develop a new product and eventually start a company.

Lisa Qiu came to the United States from China at the age of 7, and her family settled on Long Island, New York.

She explains:

From a really young age, I realized, “oh, people connect through food.” I’ve been obsessed with food ever since. When I got into NYU, I went to Babbo, which was the closest restaurant to school, run by Mario Batali. I walked in and begged him for a job in Italian, and he gave me one on the spot. I worked in the kitchen and in the front of the house, wherever they needed me. If you get paid $8 an hour, people will basically let you do anything if you show active interest.

After graduation, she kept working in restaurants until she got a job at Hearst Corporation’s digital department.
She met her future husband, Abe Fetterman, who had moved to New York City after finishing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Princeton, at a fancy gym. “On our first date, we talked about food. He said he was really into food, and I said, ‘oh, really?’” She told Abe about sous vide cooking:

I wanted to save up money to buy a $1,000 sous vide machine, because it’s the best way to cook. In every single restaurant that I worked in, we had one: a huge hulking piece of laboratory equipment that we relied on for 70% of our components. I started thinking this has to be in everybody’s home because it’s so easy to use. All you do is put your food in a vacuum bag and drop it in the water and walk away. That’s it. It’s crazy easy. Abe said, “Let’s just make one.”

A sous vide cooking machine functions by immersing food inside a vacuum bag into water that is kept at a constant temperature — much lower than normally used for cooking — over a long period of time, three to five hours. Lisa and Abe’s first homebrew version used a bowl to hold the water and an immersive tea-heating coil to control the temperature. It sort of worked.

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Abe did some research and found a DIY sous vide project by Scott Heimendinger in Make:. “It required soldering, which we didn’t know how to do,” Abe recalls. “We didn’t know how to do a lot of things,” adds Lisa, laughing. “But we knew that it was possible to DIY something.”

One of the places Abe and Lisa met regularly was a vegan restaurant, the World Café, near NYU. “You can sit upstairs for hours and they won’t bother you,” said Lisa. It was there they overheard a conversation. A writer for Make:, Matt Metts, was interviewing Mitch Altman, a well-known hacker and maker of the TV-B-Gone device that allows you to turn off any TV by remote control. Altman travels around the world teaching soldering classes and advising hackerspaces. He just happened to be in the same café as Lisa and Abe that day.

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Lisa asked Abe, “What’s a maker? It seems like we might be makers.” Not shy, she went up to them and started asking questions. “Mitch gave me the key to his hackerspace and invited me to his soldering class in Brooklyn.” It was literally an unfinished basement in someone’s house. Afterward, they found an Arduino class at a Brooklyn hackerspace named NYC Resistor and decided to take it. I asked Lisa and Abe if they had known what Arduino was before that. “No,” said Lisa. Abe knew how to program in C++, and he found Arduino easy to use. From what they learned, they began building their own sous vide cooker, controlling the electronics with an Arduino.

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Lisa and Abe first developed a DIY Sous-Vide kit. Then, they set out to produce a commercial version of Nomiku, which involved a successful Kickstarter campaign, several stints in Shenzhen, China to research and oversee manufacturing, and finally moving to San Francisco to set up their own manufacturing operations. Bringing a product to market is a long and challenging process for a maker. Asked if others should attempt to do what she has done, Lisa responded enthusiastically: “Everybody should. Absolutely everybody.” She added: “It’s so much fun. Yes, it’s painful but there’s so much purpose.” Read more in Free to Make, available now.