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Waterfront building becoming a hub for new business ideas

Bellingham Technical College program aims for aerospace, manufacturing jobs

Bellingham Technical College's engineering technology/composites program teaches in-demand skills to help students work in industries like aerospace and industrial manufacturing. BTC uses classrooms at the Technology Development Center on the Bell
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Bellingham Technical College's engineering technology/composites program teaches in-demand skills to help students work in industries like aerospace and industrial manufacturing. BTC uses classrooms at the Technology Development Center on the Bell

If fostering creativity is a key to economic development, Bellingham appears to be taking a step in that direction with a new partnership.

The Foundry Bellingham Makerspace is close to opening in its new spot at the Technology Development Center at 1000 F St. on the Bellingham waterfront.

It should be ready for community use in early February, said Mary Elliott Keane, executive director of the nonprofit organization that provides equipment and support to independent inventors and tinkerers. The organization previously was downtown near Bellingham Grocery Outlet.

The move is significant because a connection is being formed among the community, Western Washington University and Bellingham Technical College. Western and BTC have a lease for the 10,000-square-foot space in the 250,000-square-foot Port of Bellingham warehouse, while Makerspace will sublease a portion of it. Western uses it for classes, research, and to house the Idea Institute.

With its composite engineering program based at the center, BTC uses the space for career-training classes, including training that can lead to variousprototypes for different industries, including aerospace. The BTC classes create two paths for students – they can head directly into the workforce or go on to Western for further training, said Peter Morgan, composite engineering instructor at BTC.

While the three organizations operate as separate entities, sharing one space with different high-tech equipment means more opportunities, particularly for entrepreneurs and businesses that want to test an idea without incurring a huge expense.

“I’ve never seen an incubator facility like this anywhere,” said Julia Aiken, an industrial designer who specializes in outdoors sports equipment and apparel. She said it is rare to have these different organizations, skilled workers and equipment in one place. “As a private member with an idea, I can walk in here and meet a circuit developer.”

The partnership will provide a variety of options for businesses and entrepreneurs, who would pay a fee to build prototypes or test products. WWU has an industry partnership program wherein a company can propose an idea that students can work on.

However, the project needs to be big enough that students can tackle it for two or three months, said Nicole Hoekstra, director at the technology center and a plastics and composites engineering professor at Western. Smaller projects are harder for Western to take on, but now Makerspace can help, she said.

Elliott Keane agreed, noting Makerspace has a variety of equipment available, including 3D printers and machines for screen-printing and building prototype circuit boards.

RESOURCE AVAILABLE FOR KIDS

Makerspace also is a resource for younger students.

Elliott Keane said they are connecting with local school districts and home school organizations to introduce children to science and technology. Makerspace plans to offer summer science camps and activity kits.

She also hopes to create business sponsorships of special events, such as underwater robotics competitions.

Because Western and BTC also work in the same space, younger students will have a chance to see what is possible.

As a nonprofit organization, Makerspace gets much of its funding through user fees, such as when businesses build prototypes, or class fees. There is a monthly membership fee for those who want to drop in and work on projects.

KEEPING THE TALENT IN BELLINGHAM

The technology center already is part of some interesting business ideas.

Western student Max Romey has launched Kindling Collective, whose members share ideas and split overhead costs. Romey’s focus is on film production, while other members include a mountain bike tour company, artists and a coffee company.

One main motivation for Romey is a desire to start using the skills he has been trained for right away while staying in Bellingham. He plans to graduate this spring and said many new graduates have to leave the area or take entry-level jobs in unrelated fields to try to make enough money to start a business.

“Film is what I want to do, and it is wonderful to have access to this (technology development center),” Romey said.

As other entrepreneurs stay in the area and work on pursuits, they can continue having those “water cooler” moments where talking can inspire other ideas to pursue.

With Makerspace joining the mix, students can transition from a college program to the world of business, said Art Sherwood, a Western professor and director of the Idea Institute.

“If we are trying to keep our brain power here, why not provide a soft landing and have those connections in place?” Sherwood said.

Makerspace already has allowed some businesses to move in new directions.

Jenna Goodman, an artist who operates The Sunspot Series, launched her business with the idea of creating greeting cards. With the help of laser equipment at Makerspace, her work evolved into wood-burning art.

“I had no idea this was possible,” Goodman said. Now that she is proficient at it, she may host classes to show others how it works.

To get updates on Makerspace, visit its Facebook page or bellinghamfoundry.com.

The center also will host an invitation-only event 4-6:30 p.m. on Feb. 2. For details on the event, email ideainstitute@wwu.edu. Plans are in the works for an open house later this year.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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