Making in New Haven with J.R. Logan
J.R. Logan is the Executive Director of MakeHaven, a community makerspace on State Street near the New Haven Green. A native Midwesterner, J.R. came to New Haven after receiving his Masters of Public Affairs from Indiana University, and immediately began to integrate himself into the New Haven maker community. He’s soft-spoken, passionate, and bashful about his role in improving this community, but it’s clear that he’s done as much as anyone to build a strong maker community in the Elm City. I recently had the chance to sit down with J.R. and ask him about his work at MakeHaven and the innovation culture in the city — our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
Tell me about yourself — how did your background and your experience help you get to where you are today?
I grew up with my dad as an inventor, and he had a shop that had vacuum formers and all sorts of casting and crazy stuff. He also built furniture — he had a furniture shop doing big pieces, though I wasn’t into it in high school or college — I was more into computers and digital things. I ended up doing political science and then working at the United Way for ten years where I did digital resources, basically the online giving and website. MakeHaven came up as a thing that myself and friends were aware of in other cities, that there were these makerspaces doing cool, innovative things. We saw it on the Internet, saw what people were able to do on YouTube, and started talking about it over dinner. We got together with other folks, started an email list to find who else was interested in it, had a big dinner where we found out that everyone was very interested in having it happen and people started putting in fifty bucks a month before we even had a space to make it happen. As things progressed, I got more and more involved in trying to help advance it, eventually taking it from something I was doing on a volunteer/hobbyist level, to today where it’s my full-time job.
What’s your role, official and unofficial, at MakeHaven?
I’m the full-time executive director, which means that I’m currently the only staff member, though we are in the process of hiring a second staff member. I’m responsible for ensuring that the organization operates well, that we raise money to sustain ourselves, that we comply with the laws, that people are happy, that the trash gets taken out, all of those things. I’d say that it’s only possible because we have lots of volunteers, and a few very dedicated ones who help with all of those tasks, keep machines rolling.
“When something is possible, I think it calls to be done.”
More broadly — why are you doing what you’re doing?
It’s something that was a clear opportunity, and it would be a shame if it wasn’t done. When something is possible, I think it calls to be done, and we knew that other cities had makerspaces that were cool. We started one and we built up to be a decent-sized makerspace relative to a lot of cities, particularly cities our size. We have 180 members and a lot of activity, and we’ve only seen that as we get more awareness, more people join, and there’s a real benefit in having more members, because it’s more community, it’s more expertise, it’s more energy. You walk into the space and it’s not empty, there are three or four people working — that gives you more energy. We’ve seen that we’re in a position where there can be more great things happening, so how can you leave that on the table?
Right before we started this conversation, we were talking about your expansion and move into the new building — what’s the mindset behind that? Why do you want to do that, and where do you see it going?
As you look around the space here, you’ll see that it’s very crowded, and there’s a lot of wonderful stuff, but we want to be sure that we make the stuff that we have more useful by giving it the space it needs. One of those things is really organizing the aspects of the tool around it, and that requires a little bit of being able to spread out. We also really wanted to be able to host more events like hackathons, which means that we wanted a core space with some big tables and some room to maneuver. We saw that we were getting the foot traffic that really meant that we thought that we could grow to hold more people, to hold more machines and have more capacity to be able to fabricate things, and it was time — the decision was made to jump to a bigger space.
“We can be a platform where if you come in and you have tenacity and you have your idea, you can work with the community to point you in the right direction.”
Wonderful. How does MakeHaven fit into the broader New Haven community beyond the startups and innovation folks?
We provide a venue where anybody who has an idea can come in and have a place to validate it and access to folks who can point them in the right direction. We’re not a service bureau in that if you come in here with an idea, you can’t just hand us the scribbles on a napkin and say ‘go invent this for me,’ but we can be a platform where if you come in and you have tenacity and you have your idea, you can work with the community to point you in the right direction so you’re not going down dead ends. We can help put you in front of a machine that can potentially help you fabricate that tool, and you can practice — we see that all sorts of people from all different backgrounds have ideas and want to pursue them. We also hold a series of free public events where we just demo things, so that’s the people who want to understand what the possibilities are, and we run higher quality, one-on-one or one-on-a-few workshops in the woodshop, where you might learn to build a bench.
Is there anything special that comes with running a makerspace in New Haven compared to any of the other cities that have makerspaces?
I’ve visited many cities and seen many makerspaces, and it’s really interesting that there’s not a cookie-cutter makerspace yet. In some cities, you’re seeing TechShop-type places with heavy capital investment, every machine in a huge shop layout — they can be very expensive, hundreds of dollars per month to join. In other places you have a small group, maybe 20–30 people, and it’s very hobbyist-driven but they may be in an area where they don’t have the density. What’s nice is that with New Haven being a small city, we have enough density that we’ve been able to build up a substantial membership, we have major institutions which means that we have lots of intelligent, motivated people, and interesting things happening in places around us that we can connect with and intersect with, but we can still keep it as a smaller community that’s approachable to hobbyists at a very low price point. I think it’s a really nice spot to be.
“You’re more likely in that smaller city mindset to help somebody out, to make an introduction, to get a second chance when your first thing didn’t work out.”
On the topic of New Haven — what makes New Haven special for startups and innovative-minded people, and where do you see the community going next?
One thing that’s really helpful is a sense of identity, the fact that it’s small enough to bike around. We benefit from that here, people bike in all the time, and you get a real sense of responsibility because you’re going to run into the same people over and over. You’re more likely in that smaller city mindset to help somebody out, to make an introduction, to get a second chance when your first thing didn’t work out but now people recognize you and know your work so they can connect you to the next opportunity. I think it’s that network and that network mindset.
One thing is to first let yourself believe that you can do it — if you walk around and talk to people on the street, I feel like maybe at one time people would’ve said that never could happen here, thinking it’s a pipe dream, and now it seems that there’s a lot more optimism, and that’s the first step. If you’re optimistic you’re going to take chances, you’re going to try things that will be failures, but there will be some successes. I see this community really celebrating people’s successes and rallying behind them and accelerating them, and I think MakeHaven is one part of that. We can also be a platform that draws people out who have something that they’ve done, whether that’s art or they’re starting a small business with a craft, sewing things or building furniture, or maybe it’s more traditionally a tech startup. I’d love to see more technology, physical device startups come out of the work that’s happening here, and I think people rally behind it.
What are you excited about right now that’s coming out of New Haven?
The thing I’m most excited about is, of course, our move to a bigger location and the possibilities that that opens. The idea of doing a hackathon and those sorts of events, and really be a presence for these organizations and people who are excited about that as well. I think that there are several projects, many associated with this Innovation Places support that we’re getting — MakeHaven is part of that Innovation Places grant — and we’ve been talking to people we haven’t talked to before in the universities. We’re going to have a class from UNH that’s taught on fabrication and art at MakeHaven, so we’re finding those partnerships, and the more of those that happen, the more of those will be generated as a consequence because other people see it happening and it gives them permission to move forward and try it too. I think that will generate a lot of energy.
Who are the unsung heroes of the New Haven startup community, and what makes them special?
I immediately think of our volunteers, because that’s who I’m close to. I’m sure that there are many that I don’t recognize because they’re unsung. [JR gestures around the room.] Lior volunteers once a week, helps people in the woodshop, Eben here volunteers all the time to help develop our space — we were just over troubleshooting the electrical work, and he also volunteers in the evenings to help people figure out their electronics projects and troubleshoot. I think we try to ‘sing’ them, so I don’t think they’re very ‘unsung,’ but for me it’s our volunteers.
Those are all of my formal questions — any parting words of wisdom, things that we didn’t talk about that you want to talk about?
I’d say that we have friends over at the CEID — Joe Zinter has been really good to us, given us tips and allowed us to come over and check out the space, shown us the tools, given us tips on equipment since we bought some secondhand from the architecture school, so it’s just nice to acknowledge that partnership. Also, we’ve found that some students from Yale have chosen to be members of both, because there’s different cultures, different aspects, the fact that we’re a community-driven space and that we’re 24-hour access and we’re less institutional provides an opportunity that some people are excited about. I think the more that we have multiple spaces, we actually reinforce each other. I’ve seen that people who are at the CEID or the architecture school or places in a more institutional setting, they’ve had access to tools, they’ve had access to a community, then say they graduate — well suddenly, they really recognize the value of a community makerspace, so we’re there then to benefit from the fact that they’ve been indoctrinated with this idea of ‘I can make things.’ It also just makes a much bigger, broader community, so we can come together and smash everybody together. Being a university, you have bright, motivated people, but with a community, you have folks that have a depth of experience that’s practical, maybe working somewhere and have a lot of knowledge about the particular circuit boards they’re working on but have a passion to learn something else — being able to bring those together by being able to be a venue for that can have powerful results.