Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

How low-cost, open-source tools are energizing DIY.

DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, is not something that everyone thinks they can do but more people are doing it than you might think.

The DIY movement in science and technology is demonstrating that it can do inexpensively what large companies and even Big Science have spent millions doing. I call them “make-offs,” low-budget knock-offs of scientific and industrial technology built with off-the-shelf components. It is a version of what China has been doing to America, benefiting from the R&D that goes into refining the specifications, developing prototypes and building a finished product. Only now, with new digital fabrication techniques and open source hardware and software, individuals and small companies are in a position to compete globally with a distinctly DIY approach to innovation. It’s a new independent source of creative work, similar to what indie films are to Hollywood films developed in-house. It’s open, collaborative and done on the cheap. And almost anyone can play, as you can see this weekend at the 5th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area.

In Mountain View, Calif. last September, Greg Klein, who was about to go off to college, designed and built a high-altitude space balloon with two other students. Like a lot of Silicon Valley startups, the idea was first sketched out on a napkin. Named Apteryx, the balloon was launched with a 4-lb. payload consisting of sensors, an open-source microcontroller called Arduino and consumer-grade cameras. After about five hours, the balloon had reach 90,000 feet, which is considered near-space. The team used an amateur radio to send telemetry data and later tried using a prepaid cellphone as a tracking device. They were successful in locating the payload when it returned to earth. The bill for the project’s materials was about $800, a bit high for college students but a lot less than you might expect for something so amazing.

Here’s a picture taken from Apteryx of the Monterey Bay, which shows the curvature of the earth.


The team’s website,, shares the results of their mission. The students are not that unusual, although it’s not what every student is doing at winter or summer break. Yet, they are showing us what it is possible to do.

This spring, the Spacebridge project, organized at a San Francisco hackerspace called Noisebridge, succeeded in their third attempt to launch a high-altitude balloon. Even before them, NYC Resistor, a hackerspace in Brooklyn, launched a high-altitude balloon as well. (Hackerspaces, which are sprouting up around the country and around the world, are shared workspaces where hackers and makers come together to share tools, knowledge and community.) NASA is beginning to look to DIY communities to participate in the development of “SmallSats,” which use available components like smart phones and legos, making it possible to build satellites for close to $1,000.

makerbot.jpgThe NYC Resistor hackerspace gave birth to Makerbot Industries, a company that produces a 3D printer kit called MakerBot that sells for under $1,000. Featured on the cover of Make Magazine (Volume #21), Bre Pettis and his team used open-source software, the Arduino microcontroller and digital fabrication techniques to create a low-cost competitor to high-end 3D printers that sell at $20,000 and above. Makerbot won’t necessarily displace its more established competitors; it’s not as fast nor the same quality. However, Makerbot will expand the market for 3D printers, making them affordable to small businesses and home hobbyists. As a consequence, Makerbot will help accelerate the growth of a 3D printer community that is open to anyone. The Thingiverse website, also developed by Bre Pettis, is a shared collection of designs that can be used to create objects on any 3D printer. With more people playing with 3D printers, new expertise and new ideas will develop.

Two University of Michigan postdoc students, one with a background in electrical engineering and the other in neurophysiology, formed a company called Backyard Brains to develop the SpikerBox, a kit that “provides a great way to learn about how the brain works by letting you hear and even see the electrical impulses of neurons!” They call it DIY Neuroscience. At a demo of the Spikerbox, Timothy Marzullo, one of the two co-founders, detached a discoid cockroach’s leg and placed two electrodes on it. The electrodes picked up the flow of electrical impulses and sent the signal through a speaker, which made a scratching, popcorn sound. He showed me the neural “spikes,” or action potentials, as waves on an iPhone running an oscilloscope app. Marzullo told me that the demonstration I saw was something that he had not seen until he was allowed to use a $20,000 machine in the lab in his first year of graduate school in neurophysiology. The Spikerbox kit, which is open-source and uses four chips from the 70’s, sells for just under $100 from their website, making it affordable for high school labs and amateur scientists. What happens when you can do real science instead of just reading about it in school?

Tito Jankowski is one of the organizers of the DIY Bio community and he’s trying to make the field of biotechnology accessible to amateurs as well. He thinks anyone should be able to look at their DNA. You can start by swabbing saliva from inside your mouth and then look at it in a small, home-based lab. His small San Francisco-based company, Pearl Biotech, is starting to develop some of the equipment you’d need. The Pearl Gel Box, a gel electrophoresis system, is based on an open-source hardware design, like many of these projects, which means that the specifications are open and shared publicly. Anyone could use these specifications to build their own version of this equipment and customize it for a specific application. Or you can buy the Pearl Gel box in versions from $189 to $500, depending on how much assembly you’re willing to do yourself. Commercial versions cost more than $1,000 but most importantly, their producers don’t expect anyone but scientists or technicians to be using them.


Who would have thought that there were people like Eri Gentry anxious to join the DIY Bio community? Admittedly, she has no formal training as a scientist, having studied economics at college. When a friend of hers died of cancer, she became determined to participate in cancer research. She discovered how much she enjoyed doing the work so she built a low-cost biotech lab in her garage. Knowing that there’s only so much that she could do herself, she organized meetups and connected with others who were doing similar work around the world. A person she met online came from Ecuador to stay and work several weeks in her lab. She seeks to create a biotech hackerspace in the Bay Area called BioCurious where “professional scientists and the merely curious” can collaborate. Who would have thought it was even possible to do biotech in a garage, let alone that others were interested in doing the same thing?

archer-robot.jpgAndrew Archer, who grew up in Duluth, Minn., was unhappy and unchallenged in high school, but his mother noticed how he would bring things home from yard sales and go into the garage and take them apart. She encouraged him to participate in robotics programs outside of school and he found something he loved — building robots that could do complex tasks. His experience solving challenges for robotics competitions led him to start a robotics company when he was 17. Today, Andrew is 22 and Robotics-Redefined is building customized robots using off-the-shelf components to transport inventory on factory floors. Last year, he moved to Detroit because he had begun selling his robots to the auto companies. In Detroit, he found hackers who were interested in helping him build robots. He began training hackers himself to do what he needed. At a demonstration, I saw his autonomous orange robot move around a test track and approach a heavy item, pick it up and relocate it. Archer told me his robot was a more sophisticated version of a Lego Mindstorms robot.

One of the upgrades is a vision system using a webcam to detect if people are in the path of the robot. If the robot is bumped or pushed off its path, it can reorient itself and get back on track. It could also communicate with other robots doing the same work. All the while the robot was busy, it played a chiptune from one of Andrew’s favorite Nintendo-64 games. This industrial robot was a serious piece of work, built for a harsh environment, but its goofy 8-bit music showed that a really geeky kid was its maker.

As Andrew and other young makers become more familiar with the equipment used in industry and science, they will see new opportunities to build “knock-offs” using cheaper, reusable components that are open and adaptable to customization. We shouldn’t consider them “knock-offs” as we talk about what’s produced in China. As “make-offs,” they stand-out as examples of creative DIY innovation and collaboration. Make-offs are open platforms for doing new things, enabling more people to participate and develop the expertise to solve new and more challenging problems together.

Maker Faire Bay Area opens Saturday and runs through Sunday (May 22-23) at the San Mateo Expo Center. Meet makers young and old, talk with the hackers from Noisebridge and NYC Resistor and see demonstrations from the balloonists at, Bre Pettis at Makerbot Industries, Tito Jankowski of Pearl Biotech and Eri Gentry of You’ll find more than a thousand makers who possess the wherewithal for doing amazing things. While it’s fun being a part of Maker Faire, you’ll find yourself inspired by the creativity, intelligence and conviction of your fellow makers.

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