UPDATED — Wichitan Curt Gridley says that when he used to live in the Boston area, he was immersed in a culture of emerging technologies and start-ups.
“This kind of stuff was in the air,” says the software and hardware engineer.
He says you could be checking out at the grocery store, and three of the five people in line might be starting a new technology company. It was sort of an instant opportunity for connection.
Gridley and his wife, software engineer Tracy Hoover, now hope to foster that kind of atmosphere in Wichita with their more than $5 million Groover Labs, a nonprofit they’re opening this fall in the former Printing Inc. building at Third and St. Francis just north of the Wave downtown.
“There’s a lot of cool things going on in Wichita that are in little silos and pockets,” Gridley says. “We started realizing it can’t get to a critical mass because there’s nowhere for it to come together.”
He says he thought others might be feeling the same and wanting a way “for those kind of activities to come together and feed off each other.”
So he and his wife — their two names combined make “Groover” — are starting “what you could simply call a technology hub,” he says.
It’s to “house all the various pieces that kind of relate to technology start-ups or start-ups in general.”
The focus will be on taking the necessary steps to create a prototype or product and take it to the marketplace.
“There’s a lot of really bright people doing creative things,” Gridley says. However, he says there’s “not a product mentality.”
“There’s just not the emphasis on people wanting to manufacture products or start companies.”
That’s where Groover Labs comes in, Hoover says.
“We want to really focus on product development and collaboration.”
The 44,000-square-foot former Printing Inc. building started as a much smaller space in the 1920s and grew through the 1980s with additions, some of which have some accessibility issues and some that are simply odd.
Gridley says there’s a two-story section with a balcony that “kind of looks like a 1970s motel.”
They’re tearing down a small portion of the building and extending it in another area.
Hutton is the contractor.
There will be 14,000 square feet for a maker lab, which will include studio rental space, a wood shop, a metal shop, an electronics lab and a fab lab with a laser cutter and a 3-D printer. There also will be equipment for people to manufacture small printed circuit boards, which will allow them to take a design from a computer and send it to a machine to produce it.
The key is it’s all in one space, Gridley says.
“If you can just walk across the room and have that available it makes a huge difference.”
There won’t be large-scale manufacturing at Groover Labs. It’s more about creating prototypes to then manufacture elsewhere.
There will be 5,000 square feet for studio space and about 2,000 square feet for two classrooms, which will be available for workshops and small focus groups.
There will be another 5,000 to 7,000 square feet of co-working space with small office spaces of 80 to 130 square feet. Gridley says the idea behind small spaces is to force people to occasionally get out of their offices and mingle with others.
Options for rentals include a dedicated office with a lock, a dedicated desk or come-and-go seats available at open tables like at a library.
Gridley and Hoover are still working on pricing, but there will be month-to-month memberships for much of the spaces.
There will be event space that does not require a monthly membership. Hoover says she envisions events focused on technology or business rather than general social gatherings. That could mean a coding school, software instruction or lunchtime seminars.
There’s a courtyard off the event space that will allow events to flow from the inside to the outside. There’s also an area there to build an addition if Groover Labs needs more room.
Hoover and Gridley are also in talks with someone about using 1,200 square feet for a gallery.
“We like the idea of mixing (it) up,” Gridley says.
Some but not all of these things are available at other maker spaces, Gridley and Hoover say.
She says Groover Labs isn’t about taking anything away from those places.
“We don’t want to feel like we’re competing,” Gridley says.
He says they want “to make this a win for Wichita and Kansas and not just for us.”
‘A bit of frustration’
Hoover and Gridley were involved in a number of different start-ups in Boston, which is where the two met and married.
They sold one start-up — called Amber Wave Systems, which made ethernet switches — for $50 million.
“It turned out very well financially for us,” Gridley says.
It allowed them to start the Gridley Family Foundation.
When their children were young, they moved from Boston to Gridley’s home state of Kansas to be near family in 2005. Gridley says they figured they’d stay only a few years, but they decided to make it their home.
They became involved in philanthropy through their foundation, did some consulting and looked for ways to use and share their knowledge of technology.
“Most people were more interested in our money than our background, so there was a bit of frustration,” Gridley says.
The family’s foundation is now the financial backer for Groover Labs.
Though Gridley says his “fundamental drive and interest is in technology start-ups,” he is not a serial entrepreneur like some people.
He says he and Hoover want to leverage their experience in technology and starting companies by helping others learn about design, manufacturing and sales and marketing, which includes crowd funding and crowd sourcing.
The two will be unpaid co-executive directors at Groover Labs.
Staffing will help set their concept apart, they say.
While other places have volunteers — “some amazing people step up and volunteer,” Gridley says — Groover Labs will have full- and part-time employees and consistent hours.
“We think over time that will make a huge difference,” he says.
Maggie Koops, an aerospace engineering graduate who is completing her masters in innovation design, is the operations manager.
There will be two or three full-time employees initially and five to seven part-time ones.
“We would like to make this self-sustaining,” Gridley says.
He and Hoover hope to create a community around the building even before it opens with possible monthly get-togethers to share progress and build excitement.
“It seems like St. Francis is the next wave of excitement for Old Town,” Hoover says.
“We like the urban environment,” Gridley says. “We like old buildings.”
They say they also like meeting interesting people, and a maker lab is a way to do it.
“Maybe we’re twisted,” Gridley says, but that’s what “we find fun to do.”
“We’re building the place . . . we want to use.”