Editorial intern Shannon Cuthrell co-wrote this story.
Homemade rockets flew from the parking lot of Raleigh’s Saint Mary’s School one day last spring. It was the first time a class of freshman girls got to put their physics knowledge into action.
That was all thanks to a fast-growing Raleigh startup bringing science, technology, math and even English and arts education out of classrooms and into mobile prototyping labs built within shipping containers.
They’re called BetaBoxes
, and combined with a software platform all about creativity, experimentation, problem-solving and showcasing your work, they’re the magic behind Betaversity.
A year-and-a-half since the company launched out of the inaugural ThinkHouse program in Raleigh, co-founder and CEO Sean Newman Maroni
is raking in $30,000 a month in sales from BetaBox placements at schools K-12, colleges, museums and corporate campuses. He’s got plans to add a second BetaBox in St. Louis, where Betaversity won a global startup competition called Arch Grants
in 2014, in partnership with a global marketing research agency called Brado
Here in the Triangle, there’s a lineup of school programs along with a project with the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s part of Maroni’s ambition to make Betaversity a $60 million business by 2018, with up to 10 BetaBoxes moving around within different regions, every 500 miles of the country.
“We want to work with over 10,000 companies, in addition to the 45 companies and schools we’ve already worked with,” Maroni says.
Maroni says that he is pleased with how the BetaBox concept has motivated high schools and universities—some have even created makerspaces like BetaBox in their classrooms.
“It changes girls’ thinking about whether or not they are scientists,” said Sarah Hanawald, then Saint Mary’s dean of teaching and learning, whose students made the rockets, as well as wired phone chargers, 3D printed signs and statues and designed gardens in TinkerCad.
The BetaBox back story
Betaversity originally started as a bootstrapped consulting company while Maroni was a student at NC State University. A mechanical engineering major, he’d founded and managed the university’s first makerspace (the Garage) and applied his knowledge at other college and high schools in partnership with friends in San Francisco and St. Louis.
Their work evolved into a software platform to reshape the way students complete assignments and apply for jobs. Betaversity was designed to eliminate final papers, resumes, job fairs and career portals, replacing them with software that lets students and others document each step of an engineering or design project and then share it with other students, professors or potential employers.
That idea morphed to also include the BetaBox, a portable lab equipped with a 3D printer and scanner, tools like laser cutters and circuits, along with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards for brainstorming.
Soon after Maroni completed the ThinkHouse program, he received a $25,000 in grants from foundations like the National Science Foundation and the $50,000 Arch Grant, which required a co-founder and part of the company be based in St. Louis for two years. Earlier this year, the company received national press from Dwell Magazine
, the design and innovation blog PSFK
and several 3D printing publications.
Financing the box
With the impressive monthly revenue figures and 70 percent average margins, Betaversity is exceeding its monthly operating budget by 1.7 times and hopes to double recurring monthly revenue yet this year. According to the Dwell article, the box costs between $4,000 and $5,000 to rent for a week (depending on shipping).
But those financial victories did not come easy. Just five months ago, the company had $45,000 in overdue bills to pay, at the same time that new equipment was needed for transporting the BetaBox over long distances. Without it, even more expensive moving fees would be required.
Maroni says that cash flow was tight that month, but the company never missed payroll. And BetaBox commitments have only increased since that time.
There was a design thinking workshop last month at UNC—Chapel Hill for members of the Institute for Defense & Business, an education collaborative that fosters relationships between academia and the government and military.
And a test for the Brado roll-out has happened over the last two days at RTP’s The Frontier workspace.
Brado's interest is in innovating the innovation process and wants to offer big brand clients like Home Depot, BP, Nestle Purina, Budweiser, KFC and Unilever new ways of conducting user testing and product development.
In early 2016, the agency will host pop-up corporate innovation workshops for some of the biggest brands in the world. So for example, executives or employees from a large department store could use 3D printers and design thinking to come up with new ideas for their stores in a BetaBox, located for a day or two in their store's parking lot.
But even as BetaBox explores new frontiers with deep-pocketed corporations, Maroni's true passion is for students, teaching and learning. He wrote recently in a post on Medium entitled Why Makerspaces Are Changing the World:
We started our company to accelerate the adoption of makerspaces in the traditional education system. Our 3–5 day BetaBox program both engages students and motivates administrators to invest in makerspaces of their own. We don’t really want BetaBox to go back to a school, we want to spark sustainable on-campus programs that are meaningfully integrated into the learning process.
Maroni says that the Betaversity team wants its BetaBox to be a spark for a student to pursue engineering or a STEM career, and its software to be the number one way that Millennial engineers get jobs.
That means continuing to iterate and evolve, just like they ask of the students in the labs: “We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Are we building the right thing?’ We try to seek criticism from customers and companies and effectively turn feedback into real product features.”