Make:cast #16 – Build It and See What Happens

Education Makerspace Robotics
Make:cast #16 – Build It and See What Happens

Build it and See What Happens with Austin McChord

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As a result of a $50 million grant to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 2017, the Maker Library & Innovative Learning Complex of the Future is under construction on campus. The new $17.5 million building will house a makerspace open to all students.

The man behind the largest donation ever to RIT is Austin McChord, an entrepreneur from Connecticut who has a surprising success story. In this conversation with him, I learned that he wasn’t the best student in high school or college. He had his own ideas, which he worked on while not doing his homework. He started a company after graduating from RIT because he didn’t think anyone would hire him.

His great success came after he turned down an offer that most of us would have taken. He went on to build the first unicorn company in Connecticut, Datto, which he sold for $1.5B to a private equity firm. That’s the source of his donation to RIT, and his one direction was he didn’t want anything named after him. Instead they would be named after others he knew such as some of his favorite teachers and some he didn’t but wanted to recognize such as the women behind the movie “Hidden Figures.” An unusually generous and thoughful gesture.

His current company, Casana, is building smart toilet seats, which is a much better idea than it sounds at first. Austin is also the founder of Norwalk Havoc Robot League, which is in its third year. NHRL hosts combat robots in 3, 12 and 30 pound classes and streams the matches online.

The NHRL House Robot and Two Competitors

Austin McChord is not someone I knew before this interview but he has a remarkable maker story. And he’s doing things now that give others the access and opportunity, like he had, to build things and see what happens.


Screenshot from conversation between Dale Dougherty and Austin McChord
Screenshot from conversation between Austin McChord and Dale Dougherty

I got really lucky in the sense that the business did not fail. The original business idea was not a great one. I tried to raise money. Everybody was like, no. What are you doing? You’re making hardware in a basement with a hot glue gun and a soldering iron. And this is not a real business. The backup thing has been done before.

As we started going out to customers, we learned about the edges of where this would go. And at the time when everybody had a server at every small business, when those servers went down, those whole businesses were paralyzed.

I feel young people now don’t get enough access to stuff to learn that they can make the things around them in the world. And people feel like everything that they see around them comes from a factory in China and it’s just not true at all.

And they also think that robots make everything and robots make a few things, but the vast majority of stuff is made by people. And it’s every screw that you ever see in a product there’s like a 99% chance that screw was installed by a person. And if you ask anybody, they’re just shocked that was the case that a human put that screw in there. And that no, these things are more accessible and people make things.

Yeah, robots are getting better at making things, but there’s so many people involved in the process of making a thing and it’s also not impossible for you to make it too, whatever it is. So to bring that together and that’s where kind of the makerspace stuff comes in.

When I was at RIT, they have all these incredible labs with all this incredible equipment behind a locked door. And that sucks. And so the idea is all right let’s put some money aside to make even more incredible labs with even more incredible equipment and let’s leave the door open and see what happens.

My hope is it will be deeply empowering for people to work on projects, to interact together, to see the fusion of both the software side, the hardware side, the design components, the artistic components necessary to make all of that work and make new things that, in general should make the world better.

I’m sure a lot of it will just make people giggle or laugh, but do that and provide the room and the space for students to make that happen. And I think that it can be a unique asset for RIT that builds upon the left brain, right brain that the university has.

I went to these other robot events and I (thought that) these things take too long and they’re not well run and I don’t have time to wait for this whole thing. Someone could run this so much better and that’s where the Norwalk Havoc thing was born.

The idea is that I could produce a stream that would look on par with like broadcast television, very high quality and eventually get YouTube and online ad revenue to pay for the cost of the event. And so it’s this grand experiment and we’re in our third year now.

In the past year I kinda went all-in crazy on it. I bought a building. I’ve got 67,000 square feet dedicated for this event now. And I’ve got all sorts of stands and I’ve got an incredible set of broadcast gear that would rival anything that you see on TV and put the whole thing together.

And so we’re just if you build it, they will come has been the mentality and each time we’ve gotten progressively better and better.

Media setup for NHRL events

You have to design for failure. These robots come at each other and then they get beat up and then you’ve got to repair and fix and be ready to fight again in 20 minutes. It’s not just can your robot do well once, but to win the event, you’ve got to fight 10 times.

Photos and RIT drawings provided by Austin McChord.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty