High-Tech Workshop Where Jack Dorsey and Jim McKelvey Built Square Eyeing St. Louis


  • TechShop

Inventors need workshops. Thomas Edison built his in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and it's there that he hit upon the incandescent light-bulb; Nikola Tesla's mythic New York lab contained only God-knows-what. (Teleporters, probably.)

But when St. Louisans Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey needed a prototype for a mobile payment platform, they went to TechShop in Menlo Park, California. TechShop is a membership based workshop stocked with every tool a tinkerer could want. That's how McKelvey and Dorsey built the first Square credit card reader in 2009.

TechShop is eyeing St. Louis for expansion, and the possibility has the city's technology and innovation community hustling to gin up interest and funding.

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"TechShop is fundamentally an open-access workshop," says Dennis Lower, president and CEO at Cortex. Cortex is St. Louis' technology and start-up district located in the Central West End, and Lower says the organization is working to attract the $2.8 million and 1,000 membership commitments that TechShop requires to open.

Cortex is hosting an open forum today to gauge interest in TechShop. It'll run from 2 to 4 p.m. at 4320 Forest Park Avenue.

Once the facility is built, it will contain everything from sewing machines to laser cutters, giving both the city's entrepreneurs and amateur hobbyists the tools to build their crazy dreams.

"What's happened in the last ten years in this county is the emergence of the maker movement," says Lower, describing the rising interest in DIY projects and start-from-scratch startups. "We went through three decades of outsourcing of manufacturing, and it's sort of like a rubber band -- now it's snapping back."

  • TechShop

See also: Tech Startups Bring New Faces to St. Louis as Investment Dollars Double in 2013

TechShop currently has eight locations around the U.S., and Lower says Cortex and its backers are less than halfway to raising enough funds: So far, a million dollars has been raised and 350 memberships have been reserved. Lower expects a St. Louis TechShop would sustain itself on profit after roughly two years, just from its memberships alone.

It's not just the tools that make TechShop so attractive. The plan calls for fifteen or so full-time instructors and about the same number of part-time employees. In other TechShop locations, like Detroit and DC-Arlington, corporations and universities have bought bulk memberships to distribute to employees and students.

Lower says the 350 membership commitments he's received so far come from Cortex's academic partners.

"People that are trying to create things - that's what we're driving toward. It's that entrepreneurial energy that Cortex is now fundamentally trying to stamp itself with," Lower says.

Continue to read how TechShop figures into Cortex's master plan for the St. Louis innovation community...

See also: Video: Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey, St. Louis Native, Talks Childhood On 60 Minutes

  • TechShop

If successful, TechShop would become a part of Cortex's master plan to cluster five innovation centers into one technology district within the Central West End. Currently, only three of those innovation centers are up and running: the Center for Emerging Technologies, BioGenerator and CIC St. Louis.

"Cortex has pivoted from being only a bioscience park," Lower says. "We're embracing all technologies."

Harry Arader, senior entrepreneurial advisor with Biogenerator, says open laboratories in the life science industry have already proven their worth in St. Louis. Biogenerator's shared lab space hosts around 30 fledgling companies.

"If each little company had their own little set up in one part of the building, we wouldn't have near the impact. It causes people to rub elbows with each other during the day, to look at each other's experiments. This is a really powerful concept," Arader says.

He adds: "We're going to discover a lot of cool stuff."

Want TechShop to come to St. Louis? Then check out the Cortex-hosted open interest forum being held today at 2 p.m. More info here.

Here's a video about the entrepreneurial magic created at TechShop:

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com