Startup Houston: Where did you start off? How did you end up at TX/RX Labs?
Roland T. von Kurnatowski III: I went to Rice University for Computer Science and Sociology. I graduated and went to work for a consulting company called Bluware. I worked there for a while and then moved over to JP Morgan Chase, the investment bank, to work on some internal bank projects there. After I did that I decided I was bored with computer science, or programming at least, just for companies – a lot of it is just glorified accounting, so that’s kind of boring. I decided, because I worked at JP Morgan, I thought that maybe I could apply some of the algorithmic computer knowledge I had to the financial industry. I should have just gotten a physics degree, because that’s what’s useful in modeling, but I was like, oh, well, economics, that always kind of interested me a little bit. So I thought, maybe I’ll get a degree in economics, and I’ll be able to apply some of this to some of the modeling, and that’ll be interesting.
I went to school for like a year and a half to get my PhD in economics, and I found it really, really boring. I have a saying – civil engineering, you’re building a bridge, the bridge fails and you kill a thousands people, they don’t let you build bridges anymore, that’s probably kind of the end of that. But if you’re an economist, you model this stuff and your models fail people lose money, they give you a Nobel Prize. After about a year and a half, I got kind of disillusioned with that.
While I was kind of bored, I started playing around with other projects I had. I was trained to be a pilot when I was younger, because my dad is a private pilot. So I have a background in flying, and I took a flight with him, and he had his iPad. It was just he time the that the iPads were getting rated as replacements for the physical maps you have to have in a plane. You carry this book of charts, and it’s Bible-paper-thin pieces of paper – thousands of them of all the airports and flight plans in the US. And every time one changes, they send you a stack of sheets, like 55 pieces of paper, and you have to find them and stick them in your back.
With the iPad coming out, they were building these mapping systems on it. But the problem was, up at altitude, there’s no WiFi, so you can’t get weather data. So it was really annoying, because my dad was in the plane, and there’s this GPS where they get the weather data on, the service is kind of expensive, and he’s got his iPad, which is much more user-friendly. And I;m sitting there, and I’m like, why don’t we just have the weather on your iPad? That seems doable. And he said yeah, that’d be awesome. And so I started playing around with this project to do that I pulled in XM Satellite data, and pushing it over to the iPad. I built him a little custom app that just maps XM Satellite data, so he can see it on his iPad in the cabin, and zoom in, zoom out. While I was doing that, I was looking for ways to build enclosures, and other custom elements of this box I was building. While I was doing that, I was like man, I’m really tired of cutting this thing by hand, I need a CNC router. I was thinking about buying one, and while I was looking around for buying one, I ran into this makerspace movement.
There was one in Houston, so I was like, oh, I’ll go check that out. And when I got here, we were over in the Caroline Collective, and they had a closet over there, and there were 20 or 30 people, and they’d meet on Friday and hang out and talk about stuff. So I went to go see what tools they had, and they didn’t really have any of the stuff that I wanted. But I was thinking – I lived in a town home at the time, I didn’t have space to put a router table [there]. It makes a lot of mess, it’s kind of noisy. I guess I could put it in my garage, but I already had tons of stuff in my garage. I thought of the idea of a shared space where tools people temporarily used could be housed, so that everyone could get access to them [in] those odd moments they needed them. It’s a little bit daunting to play with some this stuff, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. So it’s kind of nice to be in a place where you’re surrounded by people who’ve tried all these different projects and know the pitfalls. That seemed pretty interesting.
So I was like, well, I told them, let’s improve this. Let’s get a bigger space, and start adding some of these tools that we don’t have, because they’re really the attractors/the critical pieces that a good fabrication space needs. And so we got a building over on Commerce street, it was like 4,000 square feet, and we started getting tools, and getting new people to hang out with us. And after about a year and a half of that, we’d run out of space. And so we moved over here, and we kept building out more areas, and adding more equipment and classes. That’s the history of how we got where we are.
SH: You guys have a wide variety of classes and interests here. Why did you guys decide to integrate all of that into one space?
RTvKIII: To some degree, there are three reasons. One is, in my mind, a true hacker needs all of these things. When I worked out JP Morgan, we’d always talk about siloing stuff – that’s their terminology for taking knowledge about a specific process and put it in a specific application. So we’d always have all these responsibilities silowed with these specific groups and applications. I’d always thought to myself, a little bit, you know, that’s interesting, but it really limits some of the most interesting opportunities, which are the opportunities that exist at the boundaries of the edges – the interdisciplinary opportunities. It’s like how big data is popular right now – garnering massive amounts of data yields weird results that you wouldn’t be able to find without it. You need all of these aspects. A place where there’s just a laser cutter, or there’s just a class on 3D printing misses out in the fact that all these other traditional techniques are highly useful. 3D printing is not a replacement for wood-working. It’s an addition to it. Also, if you have to go out and find/buy/contract those tings, it slows down your whole process, and also it limits your ability to find techniques that exist in other areas, and apply them to your own problem.
Often times, situations where you’ll see people and they have a problem, you’re like, someone has already solved that problem in a different field, you just don’t know what the word is for it yet. Being exposed to a wide variety of these pursuits and fields really creates that kind of aspect, that type of innovation. And it’s worked pretty well, because students from like the University of Houston, and Rice, and even professors will come by and want to work with us on stuff, because they can’t get the other departments in their university to help them with their project. I have a group from the University of Houston coming over on Mondays from the architecture department, because no one will plasma cut plates with them from the other departments. They have to teach themselves how to weld, and so they can get access to a lot of the equipment they can’t have in other places here or there, and they can get access to individuals who are interested in projects in design, development, and fabrication.
SH: What is the level of interaction you see in the groups, just from your observations walking around?
RTvKIII: We’re not really structured that formally. It’s not like we have 9 teams working on projects. To some degree, it’s like, people choose their projects, and then they choose people that are interested/want to work on the projects with them. There’s a team that is building that delta arm robot – there’s an electrical engineer, a draftsman, two mechanical engineers, a fabricator, a machinist, a couple of programmers. And there are people who’ll drop in, and hang out and work a little bit on it, or just watch and learn a little bit, from time to time. There’s also a lot of interaction on weekends and afternoons and stuff, where people will have a project – it’s not uncommon when you’re working on something, and someone walks by, and they’ll ask questions, and there’s a little bit of an exchange about alternatives, stuff like that, that people can internalize. It’s like getting input from 15-20 people as you’re building, a lot of times, which is useful.
SH: You briefly mentioned other Makerspaces. Expand upon the limitations you see in a university makerspace vs. here.
RTvKIII: I think that’s a tough one for me to say. One thing I can tell you is that there’s no limitations in terms of who can participate, which to some degree is kind of useful. While you definitely do have professionals at the university level from their instrutors, we get folks in here who are experts in their field – we have some retired Rice and University of Houston professors who come in here. Those folks are in here hanging out, participating. There’s definitely a really wide range of knowledge and those people are all mingling, which I think is probably a little bit different than the university models, where it’s students, and then an instructor or teacher, sometimes they have a mentor, I think. You also get to see these experts doing their work. So you got a woodworker outside who was trained in Italy, who’s a master woodcarver underneath the guy at the University of Houston who’s some big wig, and he knows everything there is to know about wood. And you can gain so much knowledge just by watching him do stuff, asking him how he approached it, looking at the choices he made in fabrication. There’s a lot of knowledge to be learned.