Pittsburgh TechShop fans hope it can bootstrap a comeback to avoid closing
Members of Pittsburgh's TechShop say they're optimistic the maker space can find the money needed to stay open.
The Bakery Square shop that gives members access to 3D printers, laser cutters, welding bays, a wood shop and more to create prototypes and products has launched several Pittsburgh startups and has helped to grow the city's tech community.
"That shop enabled us to get the first couple of prototypes done at literally a fraction of the cost," said Hahna Alexander, CEO and co-founder of SolePower, a company that developed a shoe insole that generates energy as you walk. "TechShop was literally the only way that we were able to do that."
Alexander and her team were members of TechShop within weeks of its opening in 2013. They still are. The company is using a pneumatic line at TechShop to run product durability tests. You've heard the pounding if you've walked through the shop.
"No idea what I'm going to do now," Alexander said Friday.
TechShop CEO Dan Woods announced this week the company planned to close its Pittsburgh location and make other changes to the Bay Area-based company.
Mike Catterlin, TechShop's vice president of marketing, said the Pittsburgh location needs at least $360,000 a year from a partner or partners to stay open. That would cover about 15 to 20 percent of shop's operating costs.
Catterlin said he is optimistic the company can find the money, and the search for a partner is underway.
"We've hit our network. We've been really pleased at the amount of 'we'd like more information' and not just straight up 'nos' and rejections," Catterlin said. "I think we've got some promising but some very early leads in the last 36 hours."
The company could save some money by moving into an old warehouse elsewhere in the city, but it could cost $500,000 to $1 million to prepare a space like that for the machines and tools TechShop offers, Catterlin said. Rent is part of the problem, he said, adding that he didn't think rent had gone up and that TechShop's landlord, Walnut Capital, is helping the company stay open until September.
Pittsburgh's TechShop hasn't been able to land the support of a large company or major institution, as other locations have, to buy or subsidize memberships, Catterlin said. Ford pays for 500 memberships for employees to work at the Dearborn, Mich., location. Arizona State University buys a large block of memberships for students.
"The individual membership base just doesn't bring in enough revenue to support it," Catterlin said
The Pittsburgh location has about 430 memberships, fewer than half the 1,000 to 1,100 the San Francisco shop has. Memberships cost $150 a month or $1,650 a year.
President Barack Obama visited the shop in 2014, the year after it opened, to announce commitments from 89 mayors, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, to open more spaces like TechShop. Pittsburgh's TechShop was one of eight at the time. It had about 80 members.
"It was never just the access to all the tools. It was the community. It was the inspiration. It was the peers," said Heather Mallak, a founder of Digital Salad, a company that merges technology, art and farm education.
Mallak was an early member of TechShop. She went to the shop Friday to use an embroidery machine. Mallak said it's the only space like it in Pittsburgh.
"TechShop staying in Pittsburgh is necessary," Mallak said. "I think Pittsburgh has it in it to continue its support. I think the rally will happen."
Aadam Soorma worked with TechShop when it first opened in Pittsburgh. Since, he's seen it become an important part of the community. He thinks it can find the money to keep going.
"If anywhere, it would be here," said Soorma, a freelance digital marketer. "We're such a gritty, bootstrap community."
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.
Correction: Aadam Soorma's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.