Hardesty Center for Fab Lab Tulsa has grown from an MIT concept for fostering innovation to a privately funded, stand-alone facility where Tulsans can take projects from concept to creation.
San Miguel Catholic Middle School students work with Fab Lab Tulsa volunteers. Fab Lab also operates educational programs with Kendall-Whittier Elementary School and Street School.
Fab Lab Tulsa began as a concept but has evolved into a national model.
It celebrates its first full year in its permanent space Sept. 13, a far cry from the original idea imported in 2008 and cultivated by a handful of friends.
Fab Lab is short for Fabrication Laboratory. The idea originated in 2001 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a community outreach project meant to use technology to foster innovation. It’s a long way from Cambridge to Tulsa and a long way from the original MIT plan to what has become sort of a master idea for a stand-alone facility where users generate new ideas and new products.
Matt and Diama Norris started Tulsa’s Fab Lab. He’s an engineer with Spirit AeroSystems who heard about Fab Lab when MIT officials talked with Spirit about putting a facility in Wichita. Diama is a public policy specialist with Community Action Project (CAP) who also had contacts with MIT.
They visited the MIT Fab Lab “and came back energized,” says Anne Pollard, another early Fab Labber. They recruited a couple of friends, Dr. Robert Strattan, a University of Tulsa professor, and Dan Moran, one of the founding members of Fab Lab Tulsa and secretary of the board of directors.
Their first funding came from Jeff Gettys, vice president at a company called Callidus, which has since been sold to Honeywell. His daughter is a friend of Diama’s and introduced him to the Fab Lab. He put up a significant amount of money to buy the first equipment, computers and accessories.
Pollard was involved with Kendall Whittier Main Street, a program that works to promote and restore the Kendall Whittier neighborhood, and heard about Fab Lab through Moran. She jumped aboard.
“It took us a good three years to get going,” Pollard says. “That core group put blood, sweat and tears into it. … That was our other job.”
A major breakthrough came when Michelle Hardesty took a look.
“She is an incredible visionary,” Pollard says. “She took a look at us and took a leap of faith.”
The Hardesty Foundation, which she runs, became the naming sponsor.
Another friend of Pollard’s, Deborah Zinke, owns property in the Kendall Whittier area.
“She is an advocate for community development,” Pollard says, and provided a building at East Seventh Street and South Lewis Avenue.
The Fab Lab has computers and devices to cut, drill, machine, engrave and slice non-metallic materials in a variety of shapes and forms. It also has hand tools, such as soldering irons, and equipment to fabricate electronic devices.
Non-metallic components can be used as patterns for items constructed from metal.
The response since Fab Lab’s facility opened “has been tremendous,” says Nathan Pritchett, a former partner in a technology business who became executive director in February. “We’ve had a large influx of artists, hobbyists, designers … people who make a large variety of products.”
It also operates educational programs with the nearby Kendall-Whittier Elementary School and Street School, an alternative high school and therapeutic counseling program. TU’s University School also brings students from its summer camp.
“We’re also seeing a lot of entrepreneur and venture types trying to develop products or start a business,” Pritchett says. “They have had ideas but no resources.”
Serving as a resource is what Fab Lab is all about.
Most Fab Labs are sponsored by educational institutions or nonprofit organizations. Tulsa now has one of “the largest Fab Labs anywhere,” Pollard says, and it has become “kind of a model for a new type of Fab Lab that is a stand-alone facility, independent and privately funded.”
The Hardesty Foundation is the major funder, but Fab Lab also receives support from the Chapman Charitable Trust and the Kaiser, Zarrow, Frank and Bank of Oklahoma foundations, among others. It receives no government money.
It hasn’t produced any major innovations or new products yet, Pritchett says, “but we’re optimistic that something like that will come.”