People of the Year 2013: Chris Meyer and Heather Wentler
Sector67 is more than a hackerspace
As you walk into Sector67, it’s easy to see how the space eludes a steadfast definition. The member-based nonprofit on Madison’s east side is often described as a makerspace or hackerspace, but it’s more than that. It’s a giant garage, a community meeting center, an art studio and a co-working space. It’s a school, a woodshop, an advanced prototyping center, a business incubator, a library and a “social club for nerds,” as one member puts it.
And Sector67 is just … cool. Founded by Chris Meyer in 2010, it is steadily attracting attention from heavy hitters in the Madison area. Mayor Paul Soglin chose to hold a press conference here in early 2013. Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP, wrote in a letter published in the Capital Times that his team is working to expand centers like Sector67 throughout the Madison region. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce touts it as an example of job creation and innovation and used Sector67’s 3-D printers at its 2013 Biz Expo. And University of Wisconsin higher-ups keep Meyer, a prized alum, close; they recently tapped him to run business plan contests on campus.
Yet despite the increase in awareness among techies and select power players, much of Sector67’s identity remains a mystery.
“You try and explain to people that this space is supposed to be used for whatever [they want], and sometimes they don’t really get it,” says twenty-eight-year-old Meyer, who started Sector67 after earning both his undergrad and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering at UW. “People say, ‘Well, you couldn’t really do this here,’ and you can self-limit and say you can’t do that here, but we probably can.”
Leaving Sector67’s function up for interpretation was Meyer’s intention for the space all along.
The one caveat?
“I did want to see people being entrepreneurs and people leveraging it for their own personal development,” he says. “But I was very cognizant that people were going to use it for a lot of different things.”
And that’s exactly what’s happening at 2100 Winnebago Street. Sector67–referred to by insiders simply as Sector–is filled with smart people doing interesting and creative things. Activity at the makerspace generally shakes out into one of three de facto roles: serving as a social “third space” that isn’t the home or workplace, encouraging economic development and providing STEAM education, which is in large part thanks to all-around educator and one-half of tech power couple Heather Wentler, married to Meyer since February.
In any and all of the three purposes Sector serves, you’ll find students and professors, entrepreneurs and working professionals, left- and right-brainers. You’re just as likely to encounter a curious neighbor as you are an out-of-state visitor with a mission to see the space.
The members who use Sector as a third space show up just to hang out and participate in social activities, like monthly board game nights, or after work to tinker on side projects. When you bring together a creative and technically inclined demographic that has access to shared tools and equipment, these side projects reveal a telling blend of skill and moxie. What these people do for “fun”–building a functional, eight-seat electric tavern that sits atop dirt bike wheels or enhancing kids’ power wheel vehicles for a national makerspace racing series–is goofy, yes, but in order to build the things, you’ve got to be pretty damn intellectual, too.
But it’s not just tinkerers and hobbyists hanging out at Sector. Some members join to launch and grow their own businesses there, just as Bob Baddeley did with his startup Portable Scores. With a support network of mentors plus prototyping equipment like computer numerical control, or CNC, machines, 3-D printers and welding equipment all available in the same space, the timeline for turning a pipedream into a real business is cut considerably. SnowShoe, a Madison startup, produced an early prototype of its aluminum stamp at Sector using a CNC mill.
Scott Hasse, a software consultant with Flexion by day and Sector’s second official member, is a firm believer in Sector’s ability to help startups and serve as an economic engine. “[Fostering entrepreneurship] has been an ongoing and incredibly important goal here,” he says. “It’s super powerful to see someone come in with an idea and watch it become a real, working prototype.”
And beyond entrepreneurs, students of all ages wander over for classes. That’s where Wentler comes in. Her business Fractal runs its hands-on STEAM–the critical-for-the-next-generation skill set that includes science, technology, engineering, art and math–classes for youth entirely out of Sector, and just about any programming for kids in the makerspace is her doing.
“You get stuck in the textbook world; you just have to bring it back to reality,” Wentler says of her preference for the interactive, project-based curriculum Fractal employs over more traditional methods used in schools.
And while laser cutters, 3-D printers and spare circuit boards may not be the “reality” in most kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms, these types of equipment are a fun and engaging way to illustrate how concepts like reflection, trigonometry and electricity function in the real world.
Sector hosts adult classes, too, and Meyer and Wentler collaborate to tailor classes for each audience. They play off each other’s strengths: He has the technical skills and she knows how to run a classroom and engage students.
“It’s a partnership,” Wentler says. And they’ve had time to practice, having been a couple since high school.
Sector’s educational efforts go beyond its own space. Two local schools have been especially involved: Monona Grove charter high school, where students can take a seminar course to see what Sector has to offer and then use what they’ve learned to complete an independent project, and Sherman Middle School, where an after-school science club led by Meyer and Sonic Foundry founder Monty Schmidt is changing kids’ lives.
“We had some very disengaged students at school who got very into this,” says Sherman principal Michael Hernandez, noting how lucky he feels to have this partnership at his school. “The students loved the challenge … it’s been amazing.”
Sector67 celebrated its third birthday last month. Upon reaching the milestone, Meyer and the crew are proud of Sector’s growth.
“For the first year, it was totally an experiment,” Meyer says.
After winning $7,000 in cash from the Burrill Business Plan Competition in 2010, Meyer had just enough money to purchase some machining and electrical equipment and keep the lights on. He lived off his savings and gained members by word of mouth.
In Sector’s second year, membership more than doubled. But still unable to pay himself a salary from Sector’s membership revenue, Meyer took a job with UW-Madison facilitating a business plan contest, much like those he competed in for five years, and has since taken on a
different post at the flagship campus helping run a brand new contest called the
Agricultural Innovation Prize. His hope remains that someday Sector will be financially stable enough to pay a salary.
How will he know when that’s possible? When membership ticks up to sixty-seven. That’s the number that he arrived at in his business plan when after calculating the cost of keeping the space open and maintaining equipment with the revenue
generated from membership dues.
“We’ll be there in the next couple months,” Meyer says. But even without it, the space shows signs of continued growth and success.
In March of this year, Sector67 was granted 501(c)(3) status, officially making
it a not-for-profit. It’s doubled its physical space, now occupying just over 8,000 square feet, and is looking to move into –and anchor–a proposed space on East Washington Avenue called StartingBlock that’s ten times as spacious.
A big part of the equation here is Meyer himself. Referred to as the “benevolent dictator,” he can easily command attention during one of Sector’s monthly meetings or while leading a class, but does so without losing his infectious enthusiasm or his genial nature. He’s a kid from Milton, Wisconsin, in the best way possible.
Attend one of the open-to-the-public monthly meetings and you’ll get a sense of how Meyer creates a welcoming culture and tight-knit community.
“I can say very confidently that Chris is the most competent person I’ve ever met, but he’s also the most humble. And that transfers to the whole space,” says Scott Hasse, who now sits on Sector’s board in addition to being a regular member. “His vision has been spot-on for how to make a space like this.”
And makerspaces like Sector aren’t just cool. They’re predicted to alter the way products are manufactured and distributed, and are part of a larger “maker movement” that encourages do-it-yourself culture, creativity and innovation. The maker movement has even been dubbed the next industrial revolution.
But for now, Meyer isn’t pondering a revolution. He’s just doing his thing, working hard to keep Sector67 the geeky-cool Mecca that it is and introduce Madison to the makerspace lifestyle.
Says Hasse, “He’s got a vision that people can believe in, and it’s happening.”