In the premiere episode of Makecast, I’m talking about matching talent to opportunity with two of mHUB Chicago’s founders, Haven Allen, who is Chief Executive Office and Bill Fienup, who is Director of Innovation Services. We are also joined by Bianca Thai, who is a program manager at mHUB.
I’m smiling so much because this is so true to every entrepreneur that has left their job. This gives an opportunity for people to utilize their skillsets, do what they’re very passionate about, rather than driving an Uber or being a part-time waiter or waitress. This really allows them to use their skillsets and benefit the community as well. – Bill Fienup
Interview with mHUB Chicago
Dale Dougherty is talking with three people from mHUB Chicago:
- Haven Allen, Chief Executive Officer
- Bill Fienup, Director of Innovation Services
- Bianca Thai, Program Manager
This is an edited transcript of a conversation originally recorded on September 30, 2020.
mHUB Chicago, located in a building, which was once a Motorola electronics lab, is a maker space that is about three years old. It is one that predominantly serves commercial makers, most of whom are developing new physical products. It’s an innovation space that has supported over 350 companies and created an innovation ecosystem for hard tech centered in Chicago, but able to reach beyond it.
Over the last year or two, mHUB has begun offering product development services that allow makers, engineers, and others to work on paid projects for corporate clients, filling a need for rapid prototyping for those companies and helping entrepreneurs bring in some money while they get started on their own project. Recently, mHUB was awarded a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the federal government to scale these services, developing new opportunities for talent and providing a service to client companies.
In this episode of Makecast, I’m talking about matching talent to opportunity with two of mHUB Chicago’s founders, Haven Allen, who is Chief Executive Office and Bill Fienup, who is Director of Innovation Services. We are also joined by Bianca Thai, who is a program manager at mHUB.
Haven: I have been at this for a long time, but really looking to build an organization that could lower barriers, where more people can engage in hard tech and physical product innovation.
Dale: That’s Haven Allen. He’s wearing a mask because he’s working out in the open at mHUB and he sounds a bit muffled and there’s some background noise throughout the conversation.
Haven: That took the lens of creating a place, a convenient place, providing access with capital intensive equipment, really fostering interactions between the talent and the community, and then the community with the industry.
Dale: Haven met Bill Fienup in 2014 after Bill had started a place called Catalyze Chicago. I asked Bill what he dreamed of in starting a place.
Bill: So I think this was really a dream come true because we set out to build mHub to really solve some of the challenges that entrepreneurs had, really removing those barriers. I had access to a lot of resources before I became an entrepreneur.
I graduated from MIT, had a lot of connections with professors and access to the best tools over there. and then I worked for IDEO in inside product development and did some consulting for seven years. It really hit me when I quit my job and found myself alone in my apartment, trying to build a physical product and trying to launch a business.
I didn’t have people to talk to. I didn’t have equipment to prototype. I didn’t have, the manufacturing connections or access to capital. It was impossible to talk to manufacturers when you’re looking to make one or two of a product. I think what’s great about this is that we set out to solve all those challenges, really provide a community with a diverse set of talent and resources.
So with that community, you can connect anyone to the technical knowledge and expertise. The community is really the most valuable asset that we had. So we’ve got about $6 million worth of equipment in our prototyping lab. And everyone has access to that equipment, which was a dream of mine as well. To get people access to those resources where they can learn how to use that tool, and then use it to prototype and then scale their business.
Just as important as the tools is really the mentorship and the education. So we go pretty deep into programming, not only in product development, but also how to start and launch a business, how to build a financial model, how to create pitch decks. It’s really key having that mentorship and that programming that comes along with it.
Haven: I would add the product development services as well. It’s access to capital, but also access to the necessary financing to be able to sustain your life, invest in your inventory, invest in your automation and with product development services. We’ve put over a million dollars of contracting work into the community over the last two years, which is extending runways and providing that financial wherewithal to even be able to be an entrepreneur.
Dale: Break that down a bit. Like Bill was saying, when you quit your job and you start working for yourself or developing a new project, you don’t have any income. You don’t have investors, you don’t have anything, but your idea. How could you provide that transition for people who need to do work, on an independent basis, as contractors or whatever?
Bill: I’m smiling so much because this is so true to every entrepreneur that has left their job. It’s a need, not only for the entrepreneur, but also our community. We need access to some new solutions, but this gives an opportunity for people to utilize their skillsets, do what they’re very passionate about, rather than driving an Uber or being a part-time waiter or waitress. This really allows them to use their skillsets and benefit the community as well.
This is generally what people do part time. They try to freelance, right? So we wanted to facilitate that effort as well as we had a lot of clients and customers of ours coming to us saying, “Hey, you guys are the experts in product development. Can you help me develop the product?” and so we married those together and can facilitate that through this program.
Bianca: I’d like to add on top of what Bill is saying it having come from a medium sized manufacturing company in the suburbs of Illinois before joining mHUB.
Dale: That’s Bianca Thai, a program manager responsible for the product development services.
Bianca: I speak on behalf of the fact that no, that business group is really good at focusing on our core business, right? And the day to day. But as far as new product development and finding different avenues to gain new customer markets and segments, that was challenging. And I think I speak on behalf of a lot of local manufacturers and companies that have now come to mHUB?
Where they ask like we don’t have access to XYZ talent, And that could be anything from software development to material experts. So coming to us, we can quickly tap into the talent pool that we have, and really then help them figure out where their priorities are, where their challenges are and how we can support them.
Dale: What does it look like from a member’s perspective or someone, that is this maker entrepreneur? Do they sign up to this program? Do they register? Do they get interviewed? How does that work? How do you know that they can do what they say they do?
Bianca: I think part of that is they’re in that mHUB space, right? So, we know what they’re working on. We know who they’ve interacted with. So we can speak to a lot of the skills that they have and the products and deliverables that they can provide, but it is an application process.
So the talent does have to come through an application. We review their skills. We categorize their skills on a scale of one through five. So, one being brand new to the subject of five, being an expert.
Dale: That’s interesting. You’re matchmaking, right?
Bill: Yeah. And there’s also an orientation process where we also mentor them and how to communicate with clients, how to write proposals. There’s a lot of education that goes on through this program as well. And we want to make them better.
Dale: Haven, let me ask you, I would expect that some maker spaces and other groups have stayed away from this, saying to themselves that we don’t want to be a consulting business, or we don’t want to be responsible for that work.
Haven: Yeah, no, I think it goes back to, what Bill was saying about how we even develop this. It was voice of the customer and there’s two customers here. One the startup that needs to put a roof over their head, continue building their business. And the other side where industry was coming to us with a very defined need that was particular to them and wanting access to the talent to develop that need.
And, we have other industry partners that are very engaged with the startups and the teams that are coming and developing new products. But some that know the problem, some that know the market, the customer had the ability to manufacture and they’re just looking for talent. And, with the mHUB being the partner in between, we actually give a lot of these independent contractors, the ability to work with Fortune 50, Fortune 500 companies, which would never, unfortunately, fortunately take on that type of work because the risk that is involved in working with someone that isn’t third-party validated. So, it was a win for us. It was a reaction to the voice of the customer.
We’re happy to be able to remove those financial barriers for our startups and unlock a lot of value for industry. That’s where we think we should be playing. And, so we, didn’t shy away from that.
Dale: But it’s required setting up some infrastructure to do that at mHUB, right?
Haven: Yeah, no, it continues to evolve. Early on, we had access to everybody’s talents, right? When they sign up, we know their skill sets, we know their backgrounds and we were able to mine that. But it was really a one-person show with Bill, being able to manage our existing clients and build that out. We started to infuse some technology. We brought Bianca on. We purchased a platform. We’ve been building it up over time as we’ve understood where there’s areas to automate areas of growth, where we have expertise, how our partners and manufacturers actually want to engage.
And, so it’s like any small business we’ve taken steps, but had infrastructure to be able to tap in and really leverage.
Dale: So now you’ve gotten a grant to maybe scale up the program.
Bianca: We received the build to scale grant from the EDA.
Dale: EDA is Economic Development
Bianca: Yes. Using that fund, we’re gonna really scale product development. So, we want to really create this marketplace that brings together all of our clients on both sides. Our customers are our talent, as well as our clients, the small to medium sized manufacturers.
In doing so, right we need to increase the amount of talent that we continue to bring in to mHUB. We need to increase the skillsets that we offer, based off demand from our clients. The grant is to help support the scale of that, so we can connect more entrepreneurs and designers and engineers to small-to-medium manufacturers here locally.
Dale: Is this locally or regionally focused or is it nationally focused?
Haven: There’s obviously just being in Chicago, a higher concentration here in the Midwest region, but there’s clients in upstate New York and the talent — we’re honestly still trying to figure that out.
Our goal is over the next three years to have about 500 contractors that are participating in this program. We see connections with universities and extension to some of our partners like Northwestern, IIT, and University of Illinois, where there’s a similar sort of a market failure in the need to get experiential learning opportunities, practical experience for engineers and looking to pull them onto some of the project teams.
We also want to support 120 small-to-medium sized manufacturers over the next year. Those could be all over the U S. We are looking at the role other maker spaces and innovation centers can have in augmenting and participating in the talent pool and contracting, but we are still very early in the strategy and planning stages around that. We are looking to hire someone specifically on talent development who will engage with those stakeholders, better understand the landscape outside of Chicago to see where those market opportunities are.
Dale: Chicago is a great place for this experiment to be centered. But, it’s just a large area, but you do have a lot of manufacturing talent. one of the things that excites me about this, engineers can now work on freelance basis when you have spaces like mHUB.
You can actually work pretty nimbly, and certainly some people want to be entrepreneurs and have their own idea, but other people want to just apply their skills and talents in a useful way.
So, I think this is actually a great need.
Haven: Yeah. we think there’s huge market opportunity. That pool of talent, our special sauce is, as Bianca was saying, and Bill, we know the people here, we know what they work on. We can validate their product. And trying to understand scale in that manner is something we’re going to figure out over the next two to three years.
Dale: The other thing that we see using COVID-19 as an example, is when a problem is well-defined and there are some goals, there are a lot of people who can work towards that goal.
It’s a more challenging and more entrepreneurial thing to identify a problem, research it to understand what the right fit of a solution is. But, the company says, here’s the problem we have, and we understand what it is and what it needs. We just don’t have the resources to go after it.
Haven: Absolutely. Bill and Bianca led all of our product development and engineering around COVID -19 and it was amazing. To what you were saying — to see the community come together.
Bill: I was impressed as well. When this pandemic hit, there were a number of challenges that were immediately put on our plate. And we worked with local hospitals to really understand what things are lacking, what things patients need. And we had about a dozen projects that were COVID-related — everything from ventilators to manual resuscitators to PPE and face shields, face masks, PAPRs and UV light. There’s a lot of projects that the community just really bonded together to solve some of these challenges.
We had probably about 60 or so volunteers. We did have to change kind of the way we innovated. We found this tool called Miro, which is an online whiteboard, where everyone can participate at the same time. And we use that as a platform to brainstorm, virtually, and, we still got a lot of participation, a lot of very organized output, and we refined our process in that virtual environment. Once you get into physical prototyping, you do need to be on site or you need to access the tools. We were very cautious about working together in a safe way and, quickly iterated. I think it was in about 45 days, we had a working ventilator. We brought in multiple doctors to give us feedback and figure out what features need to be in these ventilators.
Dale: There’s been talk about open innovation as a term, but this was actually a great example of it, being truly open, not one company or one person being in charge of it, but the designs and the ideas flowed from lots of different places. It often came down to a group of people who had to make decisions about what do we actually build. And, then, who do we serve? What is the feedback we’re getting?
I wonder if that isn’t a part of your next platform. It’s not just that you can assign an individual to a company to work with them, but that combinatorial solution where you’re putting different skill sets together, different heads together.
That’s the hardest thing I think for people to figure out. It’s like you find one really smart person out there to do something. But it doesn’t mean they can do everything or, their skillset is bounded in certain ways. So how do you put them together?
I think it creates opportunities and, and also just solves some real problems out there for businesses like you are talking about.
Bianca: Dale, we are focusing on supporting dislocated workers that were affected by the pandemic as well. So, we are offering 25 free memberships to workers who’ve been dislocated by COVID-19 who are designers and engineers and have the product development expertise that we’re looking for. But we will be providing three months of free membership for those individuals, and prioritizing women and innovators of color as well. So, we really want to focus on those communities.
Dale: Can you give me one example of a person that, or a small group that did a job last year or something through you?
Bill: There’s really one project we can talk about. A lot of times these teams sign NDAs. And so, it’s difficult for us to talk about the work that we do. The one client project we can talk about is this toaster.
The client came to us with a technology, saying that they can rapidly toast a piece of bread in under 15 seconds. But the challenge was that you can’t just do a time-based solution because the input — whether the bread is stale or whether it’s fresh — the humidity of the bread is different.
So 15 seconds may not even brown the bread if it’s fresh but it would burn it to a crisp in 13 seconds if it was a little stale. So they came to us with this challenge. How do we use this technology to build a toaster, a commercial toaster?
We had a brainstorming session with about 16 diverse groups. And we were thinking, can we weigh the toast while it’s cooking? Can we use sensors to maybe sniff an odor? Can we look at conductivity resistance? We had a list of sensors that we were going through and something that came out of that, which just look at the piece of toast visually with a camera. And put some filters through it. When it reaches the right color, just kick it out of the machine. That was the output of the brainstorm and their team was like, that seems obvious, why haven’t we thought of that? So then they asked us to build a prototype and within six weeks we had a proof of concept that took about 45 seconds.
We slowed it down. And then the next stage was another two months phase where we brought that time back down to 15 seconds and then the final stage was building an enclosure around it that would live up in an industrial environment. We produced five units and put that in a commercial kitchen. They’re going through testing now and, and, hopefully that product will make it to market, very shortly. But in terms of the development costs, this was about a $150,000 project that was done in about five months.
Dale: How many people?
Bill: There’s about six people on that team.
And then plus about another 15, 16 in the brainstorm.
Haven: What are the range of projects, Bill? It’s across the board.
Bill: It’s across so many industries, from automotive to medical, to consumer electronics. There’s a lot of food. There’s a lot of automation. We do opportunity assessments.
We also are getting more into marketing and product launches, opportunity assessments for business cases. We look at ROIs. We do a lot in retail. Then in terms of the talent, there’s a lot of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, material scientists, software, mobile app development, firmware, backend web, industrial design. So, a lot of different disciplines come together, especially for these IOT projects that can cover the full stack of Internet of Things
Dale: Was the work done in mHUB or at the client?
Bill: At mHUB. But sometimes we do go to client sites.
Dale: Thank you. Bill Bianca and Haven, it was a pleasure to talk to you. I’m always glad to see a maker space get some form of government support because I think this is how we have to build the economy, especially in recovery from COVID-19.
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