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Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Catalyze Chicago empowers entrepreneurs to bring new products to market and Keep it Made in America.

Most big cities are now home to shared office spaces, membership-based facilities that provide a place where entrepreneurs can save on office overhead while connecting with other creative-types.

Chicago is no exception, with several coworking spaces that mostly cater to the tech-savvy crowd, folks who are looking to launch the next big mobile phone app or Internet startup.

And then there’s Catalyze Chicago — where members are more interested in making actual things instead of the newest incarnation of FarmVille.

Founded less than a year ago, Catalyze is at the epicenter of the city’s maker movement, seeking to nurture entrepreneurs who are looking to create, manufacture and bring new products to market.

I joined several of my Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) colleagues in Chicago recently to tour the nonprofit facility. We also had the opportunity to chat with several Catalyze members, learning more about the products they are developing and, in some cases, already selling in stores.

We were impressed by what’s happening in the Windy City — and the tour motivated us to work harder than ever to strengthen U.S. manufacturing to support the work of these trailblazing entrepreneurs.

Many of us had been to coworking offices before, but Catalyze is pretty unique. Along with the long desks and wifi access typical of most shared workspaces, Catalyze provides members with 24-hour access to the tools they need to create their prototypes, from power drills to an electronics lab to high-end 3D printers.

But more importantly, the team at Catalyze works hard to create a dynamic working environment for members, who range from engineers and designers to coders and small business types. Catalyze hosts regular seminars and workshops on topics from product development to laser cutting, along with overseeing a manufacturing network that connects members with local vendors who can bring their products to market — and thus make sure the products created at Catalyze are also Made in America.

Case in point: You might remember Reveal, the metal photo frame created by the nonprofit DesignHouse and manufactured by local metal fabricator SKOL Manufacturing. DesignHouse successfully raised $23,000 on Kickstarter to manufacturer the frame, and it will soon hit store shelves in Chicago.

Pam Daniels, one of DesignHouse’s founding partners, is a Catalyze member who worked on Reveal at the Catalyze workspace.

One of the reasons why products like Reveal have seen such quick success is that Catalyze’s founders are full-time entrepreneurs and makers themselves, so they know exactly what their members need to achieve success.

Catalyze President Bill Fienup, for example, got his start as a maker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was among the inventors of the Catsup Crapper, a motorized ketchup dispenser that earned fame after being spotlighted on Martha Stewart’s show.

These days, Fienup is focusing his efforts on more practical applications. Along with Catalyze Director Jason Carley, he’s working to bring the BikeSpike to market. Essentially LoJack for your bicycle, BikeSpike is a small GPS tracking device that attaches to the frame of your bike (or the water bottle holder, if you want to disguise it a bit).

If your bike is stolen, BikeSpike can utilize its GPS technology to help you find it, much like the “Find My iPhone” app. But perhaps more importantly, BikeSpike senses if you get into an accident on your bike and sends an automatic alert to people on your contact list.

The best part? The BikeSpike team plans to manufacture the product in the United States. 

Unfortunately, while the folks at Catalyze do their best to help connect members with U.S. manufacturers, not everyone is able to manufacture their creations here at home. During our visit, we talked with a few makers who said they wanted to manufacture their products in the U.S., but found that they couldn’t due to a variety of factors, from gaps in the supply chain to cost to the availability of manufacturers who could make what they needed.

That’s what our team really took away from our trip to Catalyze, I think. We were blown away by these Windy City makers and their ability to create such amazing products (and in such a short amount of time). And we were impressed by how the Catalyze workspace encourages and supports their work.

We also know that like us, Catalyze members share a desire to strengthen American manufacturing. These makers want to manufacture their products at home, as they know that doing so is better for their business — it’s easier to check on the progress of an order that’s a car ride away versus a day-long plane ride, after all — and better for the community. Sometimes things stand in the way of that, however.

In the coming months, AAM will be working to find ways to help build a domestic manufacturing infrastructure to ensure that when makers want to bring a product to market, that product can be more easily manufactured in the United States. As always, we’ll keep fighting for things such as fair trade and a strong infrastructure, which ensure American manufacturers have a level playing field to compete with anyone in the world.

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