Photos by Joel Schnell
CoCreateX forges ahead as a communal accelerator open to all
Are good vibes and pay-it-forward generosity enough to sustain a community of makers and doers? CEO Nick Powley, president Mac Cameron, and their fellow CoCreateX co-founders and board members believe so. As do hundreds of active CoCreateX Catalysts Facebook group members and thousands of cheerleaders who lend time and talent as they’re able.
“CoCreateX is about sharing the sense of possibility that we all feel and aspire to naturally,” says Powley, a 3M product development specialist by day. “We’re a community of people who are eager to help others and, in many cases, require nothing more than a genuine ‘thank you.’”
“Truly open to everybody”
CoCreateX is “truly open to everybody,” says Cameron. “We want to help the person launching an ice cream shop just as much as the Internet of Things startup.
The CoCreateX house on St. Paul’s east side reflects this inclusive, eclectic approach. At Sunday open houses, musicians and graphic artists rub shoulders with engineers and medical-device designers in a workshop-like environment (complete with a laser cutter and CNC mill). Since the group’s founding, investors, techies and entrepreneurial creatives (including a musician who recorded an original album there) have called the place home.
Powley and Cameron love to share the story of Shevek McKee, a ship’s captain with a Mississippi River tour boat. McKee approached CoCreateX for help welding an on-deck ramp. He connected with a Jeff Thomford, a 3M veteran, CoCreateX regular and expert welder. Thomford showed McKee the ropes; McKee’s boat is now a paragon of accessibility. McKee continued to use CoCreateX’s laser-cutting capabilities to craft customized fare boxes and now shares his expertise with newer members.
“Interactions like that happen every day here,” says Cameron. “Neither Nick nor I had any hand in that connection — one person had a need, another could fill it, and the relationship sprouted from there. It’s a very organic thing.”
Another member, Michaeline Sheehy, thrives in CoCreateX’s egalitarian environs. A mechanical engineer and product design specialist who splits her time between Mexico City and Minnesota, she’s used to being the only woman in the room.
“[The CoCreateX community] knows everyone has skills and talents to bring to the table” says Sheehy, “it’s just a matter of finding out what they are and how to develop them.”
When an even more junior CoCreateX member requested help bringing a more accommodative optometric mold to market, Sheehy opened her Rolodex for him. Even if he fails to find a buyer, he’ll at least get the chance to polish his pitch in the real world.
For some CoCreateX members, chance encounters led to career-changing opportunities. Deborah Yungner, founder and CEO of ERBUS Inc. and LifeGRID Technologies, met Powley at a conference co-hosted by Beta.mn and CoCreateX at Minneapolis design firm Worrell.
“Beyond impressed” by him, she joined CoCreateX’s Facebook group and became a regular at open houses. “I realized very quickly that their values aligned with who I was as a person and professional,” she says. “They’re at the leading edge of a rising tide.”
Yungner, whose company pioneered an “all-in-one mobile utility resource system” for humanitarian and disaster relief response, did some consulting work for CoCreateX’s founders. They repaid the favor by naming her vice president of business development. Earlier this year, she officially became a CoCreateX shareholder. And she’s clearly one of the group’s biggest public evangelists.
Pay what you can, or not
CoCreateX leans heavily on people like Yungner, Sheehy and McKee for support — financial and otherwise.
“Our strategy is to maximize the profitability of the transactions that occur naturally in our community,” says Powley. Members then give back on a “pay what you can” basis.
“Giving back absolutely can include donating money,” says Powley. “Early on, we began receiving totally unsolicited ‘thank you’ gifts — sometimes literal checks in the mail.”
Payment is optional. One CoCreateX member reserved time on the house’s 3D printer. While waiting for her job to finish, she deep-cleaned the house’s common areas, including a heavily used stove.
“She gave us hundreds of dollars in free labor,” says Powley. “That’s really what we mean when we say ‘help and say thanks.’”
Grow up, but don’t change
As CoCreateX’s star rises, there’s no indication its model will change radically. But that doesn’t mean Powley, Cameron and the rest aren’t looking at ways to formalize certain aspects of the group’s support framework. They’re also exploring opportunities to increase the group’s revenue while reducing its reliance on member donations and investor largesse — and living up to leadership’s desire to “be as selfless as possible,” says Cameron.
“Over time, we’ve shifted from focusing solely on getting creative, high-energy people together at scale for events at which we’re implicitly the center of attention, toward being stage hands dedicated to facilitating others’ success,” adds Powley.
Without shedding the freewheeling, eclectic atmosphere that defines it, CoCreateX may eventually come to resemble a traditional business incubator. Following the “stage hands” theme, Powley and Cameron talk about an “adventure to venture” model that nurtures entrepreneurs through the early stages of ideation, product development, business formation, market testing and deployment.
Case in point: CoCreateX’s membership includes dozens of independent professionals with marketable — and monetizable — skills. Think accountants, lawyers, business coaches. Powley and Cameron believe CoCreateX can serve as a broker for these professionals, or even create turnkey service packages, so that entrepreneurs and “ideas people” spend less time seeking out tedious but essential services and more time focusing on what they do best.
“We expect to generate revenue by providing solutions and answers to problems and tasks that many of our members don’t love doing,” says Cameron.
For now, the CoCreateX team seems content to connect people like McKee with subject matter experts. And help people like Sheehy build a more inclusive workforce while designing exciting new products. And guide life-saving solutions like Yungner’s to market. And turn the ex-con next door from untouchable to employable with informal welding classes and a ready-made career network. And serve as stage hands for so many others.
It’s inspiring work, but someone has to do it.