The renovated warehouses on Saarbrücker Strasse in Prenzlauerberg are slowly filling with twenty and thirty-somethings in skinny jeans and dark-framed glasses – advertisers, developers, marketers, Berlin’s classic agency-types.
But GTEC partner firm, Fab Lab Berlin is not just another agency. Founder and CEO Wolf Jeschonnek meets us at the top of the wrought iron stairs. Inside, the light and airy room is filled with 3D printers, cutting machines, electronics equipment and models. It looks like a much cooler version of the art and design room at school – only the portly middle-aged teacher has turned into three young guys with a flair for design and business.
When Wolf founded Fab Lab Berlin, along with Nicolai Hertle and Murat Vurucu in March 2013, their goal was to enable individual creativity and innovation. This they’ve done by establishing a shared workspace equipped with all the tools and expertise any designer, engineer, architect, or artist could ever desire. Fab Lab Berlin describes itself as an “Open Digital Fabrication Studio”: in it, you can make almost anything.
The company, entirely self-funded to date, is unique in Berlin, but there are other similar fab labs across Europe and the US. Together, these organisations represent a movement to empower people to create individualised smart devices, models and prototypes by giving them access to tools and expertise. It’s all about being an ideal central place where individuals can collaborate to make the vision of their idea reality.
At Fab Lab Berlin, anyone can use the workspace for free, paying only for workshops on how to use the specialised machines, for one-on-one refresher tutorials and for use of the machines themselves. The crowded shelves full of half-built models and prototypes are testament to Fab Lab Berlin being in high demand.
This is just the beginning, as Wolf explains. Fab Lab Berlin recently struck a partnership deal with the 100-year-old medical technology Mittelstand company, Otto Bock, and in June will move into much larger premises around the corner on the Bötzow Brewery site Otto Bock is currently developing. There, Fab Lab Berlin will have more space to continue growing their offering for individual makers and, crucially, to do more production themselves.
But the real significance of the Otto Bock partnership is that it represents a new type of collaboration between startups and the German Mittelstand. Otto Bock is a global leader in a specialised, highly technical area – making artificial limbs and mobility devices. Working with Fab Lab Berlin is their chance to tap into the fast-paced disruptive innovation taking place in Berlin, otherwise inaccessible from their main production site and company headquarters in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony).
For Fab Lab Berlin, it’s the promise of guaranteed contracts (from Otto Bock) providing them with additional working capital to help more individuals as well as a precedent for future collaboration with similar Mittelstand organisations. Partnering with GTEC and providing GTEC startups with access to the Fab Lab space is part of this virtuous circle: connecting creative individual makers and the established companies who need their ideas and expertise to maintain their technological lead.
We walk with Wolf through the brilliant Berlin spring sunshine to the new premises. The other project he cares passionately about is Junior Lab – a week-long holiday programme for 8 – 14 year olds organised by Fab Lab Berlin together with sponsors Otto Bock and Start Coding and main man Sven Ehmann. Held at the Otto Bock Science Center on Potsdamer Platz, the children get to experiment with 3D printing, coding, digital production and try making smart products of their own. Bild Zeitung even made a video about it. At its very origins the idea for Fab Lab Berlin was as an education project. Its blossoming popularity hasn’t left much time spare – so until that changes, Junior Lab is a great outlet for their educational ambitions.
As we stand between the bulldozers and sandpiles, looking at the steel and glass structure which is soon to be Fab Lab Berlin’s new home, you can see a vision for open education, innovation and collaboration becoming an exciting new reality.
Founded: March 2013
Founded by: Wolf Jeschonnek, Nicolai Hertle, Murat Vurucu
Location: Berlin Mitte