A manufacturing idea center called Toolbox has started filling leased space near the Riverpoint campus with products to test new technologies and materials.
One corner has an Omega Greenhouse prototype for urban raised-bed gardening. In early March the greenhouse already held tall tomato, cucumber, pepper and basil plants.
Another idea is part of Toolbox’s ongoing remodeling, testing cross-laminated panels made with wood pieces that are reconfigured for increased strength.
Tenants also will try out a sunshade louver that bounces natural light far inside of buildings and ties in with sensor-controlled LED lighting technology to dim interior bulbs opposite sunlight levels.
Toolbox is occupying 7,500 square feet at 840 E. Spokane Falls Blvd., in part of a white building next door to the McKinstry Innovation Center. Although Toolbox is leasing from McKinstry – which offers tenant space for technology startups – it’s an independent venture backed by Spokane entrepreneurs Andy Barrett and Tom Simpson.
They describe Toolbox as a collaborative workspace for manufacturing and product-based startups to share tools and knowledge.
“Toolbox is all about bootstrap,” said Barrett, also chairman and majority shareholder of Berg Co., a Spokane Valley-based maker of military shelters that’s pushing into the commercial market.
Current tenants are Berg Development Co., Berg’s science and technology side; Vestis Systems, a shading and awnings maker; and the nonprofit Spokane Create “makerspace.” Washington State University’s Integrated Design Lab will move in next month.
Simpson, president of the Spokane Angel Alliance investor group, co-founded the Spokane online retailer etailz Inc. that’s headquartered at the McKinstry center. He also worked with Barrett to start Sport Scope, an end-zone camera system. Simpson said Toolbox will replicate what worked for etailz and Sport Scope: help startups build prototypes, find young innovators, research business plans and raise capital.
“There are other incubators for companies doing software, like at McKinstry, but nothing in Spokane that was just focused on manufacturing,” Simpson said. “We bring the manufacturing side to this campus.”
Toolbox’s goal is to help startups eventually leave as stand-alone companies, Barrett said.
A push to support manufacturing startups is a good move for Spokane, said Robin Toth, Greater Spokane Incorporated vice president of business development.
“We see manufacturing incubators in other places,” she said. “While manufacturing might seem like an older industry, there are so many new technologies that are being integrated into manufacturing. Spokane is following a trend being seen nationally of companies bringing manufacturing back to the states.”
Spokane County has nearly 500 manufacturing companies with roughly 14,500 employees, based on state employment data from 2013. U.S. census information indicates a number closer to 16,500 employees in manufacturing, and Toth said GSI has seen indicators of the sector’s recent job growth.
“I think our high was about 18,000 around 2006 or 2007, and now it’s coming back up,” Toth said.
Simpson said he’s noticed increased entrepreneurial activity the past 18 months, and more young companies seeking angel investment. He sees a national trend influenced by the TV show “Shark Tank,” Kickstarter’s crowdsource funding, and access to equipment such as 3-D printers for prototypes.
Spokane-area universities have ramped up entrepreneur programs as well, Simpson said. “A lot of people haven’t really connected all these dots. I do feel this is the epicenter – the University District and McKinstry – of all of that activity.”
Dan McGee, general manager of Vestis Systems, also co-founded Spokane Create. The nonprofit draws 15 to 20 people, ages 12 to 70, who meet on Wednesday nights.
Members tinker, create new products, learn from each other and share tools such as milling and welding equipment.
While Spokane Create focuses on education and sharing of ideas, McGee said for companies such as Vestis, Toolbox offers collaboration with business veterans.
“Honestly, the biggest advantage is the connections between meeting other people who already have experience,” he said. “Many of them are experts in their fields.”
Other Toolbox product testing will include use of a lightweight, Teflon-based glass replacement product and a year-round outdoor holiday lighting system that can change colors depending on the season.
Toolbox’s space is full, Barrett said, but as young companies leave, he and Simpson will vet new ones.
Barrett said Toolbox will give university students a chance to study products, and the incubator also is collaborating with the Spokane company Ecolite on new lighting technology ideas.
“There could be manufacturing jobs created at Ecolite because of this,” Barrett said. “It doesn’t have to be a business created here that’s creating jobs. It could be job growth for suppliers, partners.”
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