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Hackerspaces a Breeding Ground for Start-Ups, Entrepreneurs

Sacramento's Fledgling Hacker Lab Spurring Innovation Beyond Silicon Valley

One-hundred miles east of Silicon Valley in a former tattoo parlor, members of the second-largest hackerspace in California are hoping to make a different kind of mark by advancing technology innovation in the state capital, a region known for government, clean tech and sustainable tech, but not high tech.

Hacker Lab Sacramento Founders Gina Lujan and Eric Ullrich
Hacker Lab founders Gina Lujan and Eric Ullrich are driven by the belief that every community should have access to a space to learn about and advance technology. (Co-founder Charles Blas not pictured.)

“We are changing the world by providing community resources for education, innovation and creation,” said Eric Ullrich, a co-founder of Hacker Lab in Sacramento. “It’s all very exciting. This whole thing is like catching a big, old tsunami and saying, ‘Wow, this is huge,’ and you need to stay on. It’s scary, it’s awesome. And there’s nothing else like it in the [Sacramento] Valley.”

Hacker Lab is an incubator of sorts for technology startups that occupies a 10,480-square-foot campus near downtown. About a third of that space is dedicated to hardware fabrication and product prototyping; the facility also has co-working and office areas, tools and event space in a spacious community-like setting.

Hacker Lab, founded almost a year ago by Ullrich, Charles Blas and Gina Lujan, who serves as director, has more than 50 members who pay between $45 and $500 a month. Hundreds more individuals participate through social media channels and hackathons, called “Cereal Hacks” in honor of the supposed favorite food of software developers. This local army of innovators is part of what the three principals call a “grassroots movement” of people united to solve problems and advance technology.

“We had no idea we were building a community with the event,” said Lujan, referring to the inaugural Cereal Hack, which was held last June and attracted more than 50 local software developers.

At the first Cereal Hack, developers formed teams to develop and deliver a smartphone application in 30-hours. The team that created Raidarrr!, a live-feed geo location app for artists, photographers and writers, won top honors. The team, which has yet to launch the app commercially, was invited soon after to participate in Startup Bootcamp in Berlin. The exclusive 3-month-long bootcamp — only 10 teams were invited from approximately 300 applications — provides startups with mentoring, office space and seed funding. Other winners at Cereal Hack were teams that created a social biking application called Bikepool and Textabl, an app that simplifies Facebook invitations.

Cereal Hack 2 in November drew 75 coders, designers, business developers, hardware hackers and corporate sponsorship. Intel Foundation contributed $10,000 with additional underwriting from more than a dozen other area businesses.

Team Fiction Gun won the second event and a $2,000 prize for its application that hosts timed-writing challenges to motivate fiction writers to get through procrastination and writer’s block.

Plans are now underway for Cereal Hack 3 on May 11. Though the hackathons are marquee events, they aren’t the only ones on the Hacker Lab calendar. The events page is dotted with meet-ups, classes, HTML5 jams, “Geeky Movie Nights” (this month’s flick: “Weird Science”) and a 1-year anniversary celebration on Feb. 8 where startups will show off their products to local investors.

According to Lujan, who is also creative director of Webify Labs “on the side,” what separates Hacker Lab from the likes of Noisebridge and 13,000-square-foot Hacker Dojo in Silicon Valley, Bucketworks in Milwaukee and the national chain of membership-based TechShop do-it-yourself fabrication workshops is that the Sacramento facility is both a startup and maker space.

“It’s a completely different model,” she said. “No one else in the country is half and half. I love [Hacker] Dojo, but its primary focus is on hacking. Noisebridge is primarily for making things.”

Non-profit Hacker Lab is still several members and sponsors away from breaking even, according to the founders, but they hope the often-difficult task of raising startup capital doesn’t daunt others like them from creating similar collaborative workspaces elsewhere.

“All cities need a Hacker Lab,” Lujan said. “There’s been no better time. Product development is so obtainable right now. Having a space with the tools and collaboration to build products and software is vital to a city. It gives the region a school, an innovation campus with R&D and connections under one roof. It’s a new type of institution, a new paradigm to our society.”

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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