Group eyes Middlebury makers space for aspiring entrepreneurs

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury-area entrepreneurs and educators will spend the next few months gauging community support for establishing a “makers’ space” at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.
That new amenity would provide aspiring inventors with the equipment, facilities and guidance they need to get their original projects off the drawing board and into prototype form.
The idea is being spearheaded by local product designer/engineer David Cole and Hannaford Superintendent Dana Peterson. They are part of a group that includes business leaders and career center faculty, including Architecture & Engineering Systems Instructor Jake Burnham and Len Schmidt, assistant director of adult technical education.
Area residents can learn more about the potential makers’ space at a “Mini Maker Faire” at the career center on Feb. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. That event will coincide with a Hannaford open house that will run from 4 to 8 p.m.
It was last July that Cole visited Peterson at the career center to ask about possibly siting a makers’ space in the county’s hub for vocational-technical education. The career center serves students from 17 towns in the Addison central, northwest and northeast school districts.
Peterson quickly warmed to the pitch.
“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for growth, development and an opportunity to combine learning on the education side,” said Peterson, adding a makers’ space could also give students firsthand exposure to entrepreneurship and economic development at a grassroots level.
It’s a service that could be offered to Addison County residents of all ages, including through Hannaford’s adult education program, according to Peterson.
Before long, another 10 people jumped on board the makers’ space effort, which Peterson said has gathered momentum.
“I thought this was going to be a 24- to 30-month initiative,” Peterson said. “I think we’re probably a year to 18 months ahead of where we thought we would be.”
The Hannaford Career Center is already providing programs that would dovetail nicely with a makers’ hub. The center offers instruction in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), engineering design and architecture design, for example. Next year, the career center will launch a computer science and programming class.
David Cole became a success after graduating from Middlebury Union High School in 1988, drawing inspiration for his career path from a senior project in automotive technology he completed at the career center that is attached to the high school.
“I was hooked,” he recalled.
He knew he wanted to spend his professional life creating things. After completing his education, Cole briefly got into auto mechanics before stepping into the realm of medical device engineering.
“I always wanted to make stuff and do the prototyping,” said a smiling Cole.
And he’s made a nice career out of it, starting off in California. There, he helped four different companies design and launch important start-up products, primarily in the medical field. Among the major products he helped design was a stomach stapler used in performing operations for obese patients seeking an invasive way of curtailing their appetites.
Cole has also helped design tools used in heart surgery.
He found the work satisfying and rewarding, and wanted to continue it closer to his Middlebury roots. His spouse, Robin Foster Cole, is also a maker.
They returned to Middlebury in 2013, and now operate their own makers’ workshop off Route 7 South. Cole continues to engineer medical devices for start-ups in California that know his reputation and appreciate his skills.
Cole has been able to acquire his own sophisticated equipment essential in the “making” process, but he realizes other idea-driven folks might not have the resources and space to bring their own inventions to fruition. Cole hopes the career center can fill that void, and Peterson confirmed Hannaford can access grants to acquire equipment for a makers’ space.
Cole has also served on the Middlebury Economic Health Task Force. His tenure there inspired him to look at ways of encouraging business growth in town, and he immediately thought of the successful makers’ movements in California and Vermont. He cited as an example “The Mint” at 112 Quality Lane in Rutland, a shared space that provides tools and expertise for hobbyists, entrepreneurs, educators and students.
“It was an easy jump to see (a makers’ space) at the career center,” he said. “All those things that are difficult and expensive (for inventors) are already here.”
Peterson believes a makers’ space would be a great way to get more aspiring businesspeople into the “talent pipeline.” He added the state is trying to get these folks into the talent pipeline to direct them to three particularly promising growth areas: building trades, medical professions and industrial design.
Having a spot within Hannaford for students to develop a product idea with real-world applications would generate enthusiasm for the next generation of entrepreneurs, officials believe. It’s a generation (ages 16-24) of Vermonters who are leaving the state in large numbers for opportunities elsewhere. But there are some in that age group who either didn’t finish school or are looking for a niche in the business sector in the Green Mountain State.
“The idea that the whole community can get behind the education, application of skills and the transition into the workforce … has lots of potential right now,” Peterson said. “That’s what’s really attractive to me.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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