In a nondescript industrial office park in Northeast Austin, a group of hackers works in a sprawling warehouse equipped with cutting-edge technologies, plotting the expansion of their organization.
But these hackers are not breaking into computer networks, although many are software developers by trade. At ATX Hackerspace, members are engineers and mechanics, artists and musicians, solving technical problems, creating businesses and nurturing hobbies.
“Hackerspaces are your local community workshops for mad scientists and tinkerers,” said Matthew Vaughn, the group’s director of administration. “It’s a template that enables something awesome to happen.”
Although Austin’s hackerspace is only three years old, hackerspaces first emerged in Germany in the mid 1990s. There are now more than 1,000 worldwide, and at least a half-dozen active hackerspaces in Texas, according to the website hackerspaces.org. The basic concept is a shared space with tools and materials where individuals can build things.
Hackerspaces provide members access to tools that can be too expensive or unwieldy for private ownership. For example, a 3D printer, a microwave-sized machine that creates three-dimensional objects by “printing” layers of plastic or other solid materials from digital images, costs about $3,000. A member of the Austin group once used the group’s 3D printer to make a DNA sequencing apparatus; others have built small toys. Hackerspace members also have access to industrial tools such as lathes and laser-cutters.
“This is the kind of place that you want to come in with a project that you have no idea where to start,” said Matthew Mancuso, a microbiologist and the group’s director of human resources. “Somebody here knows how, and they want to help you with it.”
Daniel Senyard, founder of the Austin-based company Vivogig — which makes a concert photo-sharing mobile application — says the group’s culture of collaboration across many fields is something that is “very rare and very specific to Austin.”
“In a lot of places it’s like if you are successful, then that is somehow taking away from the pool,” he said.
Although Senyard’s business does not operate out of a cooperative space, he says he was “100 percent reliant on the community” — from festival organizers and musicians, to technology developers — to help bring his company together.
Sharing is a key principle of the ATX Hackerspace’s ethos. Vaughn, a software engineer, says that there “isn’t anything you can do here that will really get our guff unless it’s serving nobody but yourself.”
When ATX Hackerspace co-founder Martin Bogomoini came to Austin from California in 2009, he said, he was surprised that there was no hackerspace here. Bogomoini is the Austin-based director of operations for the San Francisco-based company PBWorks.
He met the other three founders through William “Whurley” Hurley, general manager of Chaotic Moon Studios, a mobile app development company. Bogomoini said he and the other founders—Ratha Grimes, Mike Rich and Matt McCabe—all wanted to back a social business and have a place to hack on projects together. Bogomoini offered $5,000 and found a small space in South Austin. The group attracted 20 members in its first month through social networking sites and word of mouth. It now has nearly 100 members.
The group next moved into a 1,200 square foot garage, but there wasn’t enough space to accommodate all the tools and demand. They moved to the rented warehouse last December.
About the same time, the founders decided to hand control of the hackerspace over to its members. Members of what is now a limited liability co-op own shares, and have the right to vote and decide the trajectory of the co-op. “Investment” and “Founders” shares collect interest and are paid back on a multiyear plan when they are cashed in to the hackerspace.
It’s a less expensive alternative to for-profit TechShops, which offer members similar tools. A one-month membership to the TechShop in Round Rock costs $150, while a recurring monthly membership costs $125.
Visitors can use many of the tools and resources available at the Hackerspace for free during Tuesday open house sessions and other events when a co-op member is present, and can pay to take classes.
ATX Hackerspace members who pay $50 a month have 24-hour access to the space, as well as the tools, machinery and stocked materials. Co-op members pay a little bit more for that access plus the right to vote during the group’s meetings. Others pay an extra $100 a month to have a permanent workstation.
Now that they have 8,000 square feet to work with, Mancuso says the group will shift more toward community education, and try to reach out to schools and other organizations that could benefit from the space’s resources.
Bogomoini, who has purchased $25,000 worth of shares in the space, said he expects to see returns on his investment as the co-op grows.
“Hackerspaces,” he said, “will be the new powerhouse of innovation.”