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Innovation District Promised As Maker Movement Gets a Close-Up

Memphis to participate in White House maker's challenge



Memphis makers got the spotlight last week as city officials announced they'd joined the White House's "Mayors' Maker Challenge," and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton promised more resources to aid the city's already hot start-up community.

Makers make things. They're inventors, tinkerers, builders, craftsman, and more. Five-In-One Social Club is an example of crafty makers in Memphis. The Broad Avenue storefront offers classes on sewing, working with paper, or making rubber stamps. The more high-tech Mid-South Makers group whips up giant LED clocks, micro-controlled robots, drones, and more at its Memphis workshop.  

Claudio Donndelinger and Jonathan Wood of the Mid-South Makers show off a 3D printer. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Claudio Donndelinger and Jonathan Wood of the Mid-South Makers show off a 3D printer.

White House officials claim such makers are all over the country and have spurred a "Maker Movement" in the past decade that has led to a revitalization of the country's manufacturing sector. Memphis joined 90 other cities this month in the Makers Challenge that will help the cities bolster their makers with tools, technologies, and education.

Wharton took the announcement a step further last week by promising a roundtable discussion this fall with "maker thought leaders" across the city, government leaders, and stakeholders in the public and private sectors. That discussion will focus on creating partnerships and new policies to expand maker programs in the Mid-South. The basic idea is to make the movement a job creator. 

To do that, makers need to become entrepreneurs, launch companies, and sell their products. Memphis has gotten good at this game and has become a hot bed for tech-based start-ups, especially in the biomedical sector, but generally any company that wants to can make just about any tangible product. 

Start Co. managing director Mara Lewis said her start-up accelerator has eight teams working in Memphis on everything from drones to bulletproof backpacks for students and children. Those teams have come here from Singapore, Miami, Amsterdam, New York, and other places.

"As a serial maker and start-up founder living in San Francisco, Memphis just really exhibited an entrepreneurial ecosystem of access and inclusion and enthusiasm for innovation unlike anything I'd seen anywhere else, including San Francisco," Lewis said, "and I really wanted to be part of it."

To aid this momentum, Memphis Chief Administrative Officer George Little said the Wharton administration is working to make an "innovation district" in Memphis near the Medical District and The Edge neighborhood. The district would be a place for new companies to locate with access to office and manufacturing space. More details on the new district are expected after the roundtable discussion this fall.

Also, a new space for makers is expected inside the new $1.5 million Teen Learning Lab at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. The space will give young people access to digital technology and a 3D printer to help grow the next generation of Memphis makers.

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