In recent years, the Triangle startup scene has seen a shift towards DIY, community-built innovation, a trend that is well-represented through a new trend in “hackerspaces.”
This story is the first in a series that will explore both the meaning of the term, as well as the organizations that are bringing it to life in and outside of the Triangle.
Tucked in downtown Durham’s startup district is a space that fosters what can only be described as kaleidoscopic collaboration between innovators of all kinds.
At Splat Space, “geeking out” is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. And it holds a broad definition that fits all of its members, whether they’re artists, musicians, biotechnologists, engineers or even educators—all are welcome.
The organization was founded six years ago, dubbed “Durham Makerspace.” As membership grew from just a small handful of innovators to a larger, more diverse mix of professionals and creators, the name was changed to “Splat Space,” which implies a somewhat upcycled, “do what you want” mentality.
This concept is representative of a larger effort to reclaim the term “hacker.” The goal is to redirect the label away from its often misunderstood criminal reputation toward an association with innovation.
Splat Space defines the term as “people who are interested in learning all they can about the fields that interest them, explore the bounds of those interests and create new and interesting ways to apply that knowledge.”
And hackerspaces, both national and local, offer a professional home to those people. They can be registered on an informal network called hackerspaces.org. There are currently 1,312 worldwide active hackerspaces listed on the site, as well as 354 spaces marked as “planned.”
The movement is grassroots in nature, evolving out of online forums, chat platforms and resource wikis. Offline, physical hacker/makerspaces provide the necessities members require to launch projects.
Splat Space in particular offers a range of tools to its members—anything from drills, saws and laser cutters to 3D printers, generators, and vinyl cutters. Full members have 24/7 access to the space, and free and discounted entrance into workshops and classes.
The organization also offers discounted memberships to full-time students, as well as a “associate membership” option at a lower cost that includes all the benefits of a full and student membership, minus 24/7 access.
Splat Space’s calendar contains an array of events open to members (and sometimes the public) to help inspire productive collaboration.
Upcoming events include an open project night, a “sewcialist” party for members in textiles and meetings for Splat Space subgroup TriDIYBio, which consists of professional and citizen biologists and scientists.
President Shaw Terwilliger refers to Splat Space as a “kind of incubator experience” for some members. He built a 20-year career in software development, now working for Durham-based telehealth startup, Pattern Health Technologies.
Through various positions over the years, he came to enjoy shared collaboration between other developers to help each other learn new languages and platforms. He brings this personal commitment to helping others build projects to his leadership role at Splat Space.
Because the organization allows for makers to retain rights to their creations, their work is in part motivated by a free-rein mentality. The space is the launch venue for several types of projects, some of which are designed for social-impact purposes.
One example is WheelGoThere, a future mobile and web application with GPS data on wheelchair-accessible locations. Users can view and contribute routes, while also competing for which ones are best. They can also check in to specific places, similar to the capabilities of apps like FourSquare.
Other projects revolve around a central theme of repurposing old ideas into new, tech-friendly ones.
There’s a whole section of projects related to creating new avenues for unconventional time and temperature display, including a POV propellor clock made using old hard drives and a cuckoo clock out of laser-cut wood gears and accents.
Members like Ben Trask use the space’s workbenches to bring computers to life. The local C programmer has been a part of Splat Space for years, working on projects mainly centered around writing open-source distributed databases, web servers and content-addressing systems.
“[At Splat Space], I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of topics outside of my normal comfort zone, from electrical engineering to biology,” he says.
As for the future, Terwilliger says the organization hopes to further broaden and diversify the now 50-member network.
“It’s a place where anyone can drop by with a problem they’re looking to solve,” he adds. “I don’t know of any other environment where they can make something exist or make something new, and there’s such a high chance to make that happen.”
The space pulses within undeniable energy and opportunity—allowing members limitless access not only to tools to make things happen, but also to a community of creators just as passionate about bringing ideas to fruition.