If you told Alex Bandar two years ago that the community resource he created −where anyone with a good idea could see it through− would expand into a 10,000-square-foot space, he would never have believed you.
Bandar went to school in New York and earned a Bachelor of Science in materials science and engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He went on to earn a Master of Science degree and a doctorate (both in materials science and engineering) at the Institute for Metal Forming at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a specialization in metallurgy. At that point, there were only a few places he could go for work and he chose Columbus.
Bandar came here because he thought Columbus was a great place with a reasonable cost of living. While that proved to be true, he also discovered an amazing sense of independence among the people here. He started looking for a group of artistic people that he could join to have a place for his creative energy, which led him to the people at Milo Arts. It was there that he founded the Steampunk Lab, an educational resource used by Columbus high schools, Westerville high schools, COSI, The Ohio State University, the FIRST robotics group, the Central Ohio Robotics Group, and other groups with students or people interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
Bandar’s group of friends grew and he moved to the Millworks Art Community where he started the workshop and design center that would become the Columbus Idea Foundry.
That was in 2008. Bandar thought he would lead the center for a year and if it was successful, he would continue. His group quickly grew out of the 2,400-square-foot space and moved to its new space on Corrugated Way at the end of 2010.
One of the important aspects of the new space is its proximity to the Wonderland project. Bandar is planning on the Columbus Idea Foundry having a presence there and collaborating on projects and programming.
Adam Brouillette, Wonderland’s executive director, has the same vision.
“Through cooperative programming, a shared class schedule, community networking, and event collaboration, the two will work as a team to support each other,” Brouillette, says. “Columbus Idea Foundry provides a creative community and a set of resources that is generally not available through other sources. Their offerings, their partnerships, and their facilities are unique to Columbus. The ability for those without these opportunities now have them for an affordable price.”
In addition to its original mission, the Columbus Idea Foundry also fosters the growth of quite a few small businesses. One of the more widely known businesses housed there is Little Alouette. Little Alouette is a small, family-run woodworking business that creates “wood for wee ones.” Joe and Amy Sharp started the business out of their home and were searching for a new space to expand. They came across Bandar’s original Craigslist ad for the space at Millworks, called him up, and they hit it off from the moment they met.
Little Alouette moved with the Columbus Idea Foundry to the new space on Corrugated Way and the Sharps “love it,” Amy says.
“I think it is affordable and a nice incubator for small businesses using any kind of tools and space the Columbus Idea Foundry offers,” she adds.
In light of their recent national recognition by Martha Stewart’s Craft Fair, the Sharps are happy to have Bandar helping them grow their business.
“Alex has shown us over and over in his actions how much he supports local business and the arts,” Amy says. “He has helped us become the business we are today as he has introduced us to technology and efficiency models that allowed us to increase production at Little Alouette.”
Some of that new technology includes a cutter that will accept the irregularly shaped, locally sourced hardwoods they use for their teethers and toys, as well as a new engraving machine. The use of technology is going to help them compete with new companies that have started to do the same thing in the natural teething arena. All of Little Alouette’s products are still sanded by hand and are 100 percent hand finished.
Helping local small businesses like Little Alouette grow is very important to Bandar.
“I feel lucky that I can help serve businesses from two sides− from the ‘top down’ by helping existing large companies become more competitive at my day job and from the ‘bottom up’ by empowering local small businesses and individuals get started in manufacturing or production at the Foundry,” he says.
He thinks small businesses are the driving force behind innovation and that investing in our local businesses will help the economy recover.
The Columbus Idea Foundry is a social entrepreneurship− a community organization that serves the community, but in this case, also is self-sustaining. The Columbus Idea Foundry is not a non-profit.
The current space’s studios are full. Some of the revenue streams include rent from the studios, memberships sold to others to use the equipment and learn, the educational aspects, and selling services to other businesses in the community. Otherwise, Bandar is funding the project himself.
Rivet is one of the small businesses that recently approached the Columbus Idea Foundry for help to bring a two-year idea to fruition. Owner Laura Kuenzli had the idea for a holiday display of gear- and cog- shaped snowflakes at Rivet but did not know how to execute it.
“These were two years in the making and I was so ecstatic to finally get the idea out of my head and see them come to life,” she says. ” I provided [Alex Bandar and Matt Bowman] with the design files and from those files they were able to use the Shopbot to construct and produce the finished product. They were very helpful with the design process and very understanding with ideal budgets.”
Soon, she hopes to have them help her create an outdoor sign for Rivet.
The Columbus Idea Foundry is supporting multiple businesses that are starting out in their shop, including:
•Sonarcana, a small business that designs electronics related to music, audio, and animatronics.
•Refab Studio, which specializes in design, fabrication, and refurbishment of interactive exhibits and kiosks.
•Local metal and glass artists David Murphy and Sharon McJannet.
•Local welding sculptor Mark Rosen.
•Local artist, photographer, sculptor, and furniture maker Allison Meade.
•Local artisan blacksmith and bladesmith Adlai Stein.
•Local metal caster Terry Griner, who designs and casts many different artistic and consumer products out of metal.
Some of the people renting studio space include Bandar, who designs steampunk artifacts, or modern functioning devices with an 1880s Victorian aesthetic; Tom Williams, one of the founding members of Glass Axis; Matt Bowman, who designs and sells exotic interactive audio devices, from sound boxes that produce different noises as people walk around them to pianos that automatically play chords and melodies depending on where people walk; David Kennedy, a local artist; Jeff Heater, another local designer; and Drew Smith and Matt Deane, two local contractors.
The Columbus Idea Foundry also hosts professional meetups, such as the 3D Printing and Prototyping design group run by Ethan Dicks. Once a month, he brings a dozen or so local inventors who bring their 3D printing machines (MakerBots and Mendels) and they design and fabricate novel products.
Brouillette provided a good summary of how the Columbus Idea Foundry is helping raise Columbus’ profile.
“This group is one of the reasons that Columbus has the potential to be a renaissance revival city,” he says. “The combination of science, arts, production, entrepreneurship and community involvement make them an ideal example of this emerging independent arts movement.”
Those who would like to be involved with this movement, have a business idea or product they would like to develop for fun or to sell, or just want a place to use the engineering knowledge they gained from college, but now lack the tools to create products, should contact or join the Columbus Idea Foundry.
The Columbus Idea Foundry is hosting an Open House to show off its new space on Jan. 22 from 6 to 10 p.m. Email RSVPs are encouraged. During the Open House, there will be an art show featuring local CIF artists; live, interactive fabrication and electronics demonstrations; a raffle; and more.
The Columbus Idea Foundry is a semi-finalist in several categories for the 2010 TechColumbus Innovation Awards. The nominations are for the following honors: Outstanding Startup Business, Outstanding Service (fewer than 50 employees) and Executive of the Year (fewer than 50 employees). The winners will be revealed on Feb. 3.
All photography in this story by Adam Slane.
Do you have, or work in, a creative workspace and would like to be featured in this series? If so, please contact Anne Evans.