Alumnus John Riley fosters creativity with Maker13

June 15, 2018

 Upon enrolling at the University of Louisville, Speed School Mechanical Engineering alumnus John Riley started working part-time at Samtec, a service leader in the electronic interconnect industry and global manufacturer, where he remained throughout his entire undergrad. He used his co-op experiences as an opportunity to learn more about the various departments of the business, gaining skills internal to the company that he still applies today. After graduating in 2006, Riley dove in head first, using his background to work in developing and marketing, serving as the intermediary between the various departments to help make their products a reality.

“I work in between the product managers, marketing, and engineering to develop what we need corporately,” says Riley. “I have to translate what the sales guys are working for and tell them what can be engineered, to make a standard road map for Samtec.”

As a means of community outreach, Samtec made the decision to partner with Techshop, a now defunct DIY makerspace initiative. Riley volunteered, taking a trip to Detroit to learn more about the venture, getting motivated to bring a makerspace to life in the process. When Techshop did not come to before helping to launch the Maker Mobile, a reconfigured race car trailer that he helped build from the frame up, fitted with 3D printers, lasers, etc., to help spark an interest in engineering in the community.

Creating a makerspace

The project kicked off in 2015, with LLC paperwork signed and run as a non-profit, the construction began on the project, which opened the next year. Through his work managing that project, Riley was able to better understand the demographics and interests of the area, learning not only what the community needs, but what it lacks in terms of resources. Combining that with his burgeoning business acumen, he set to work with his wife Christy, herself a UofL graduate with a degree from the College of Business and a background in finance, on what is now Maker13.

He explains of Maker13, “It can be for any type of businesses. We’ve seen a weird evolution of what we thought would be startups, to craft, almost Etsy shops. It’s been interesting to see the diversity to see what can be built in the space.”

What Riley has worked to foster, is not only an environment that gives burgeoning startups and budding craft businesses to flourish, but the opportunity to build a community. Through his work at Samtech, Riley has come to appreciate the intersectional and symbiotic nature of engineering, design, and marketing, in being able to yield a final product that satisfies functionality, safety, aesthetic design, and as broad of a consumer appeal as possible. He has a pragmatic view that while something can be made functional or attractive, if it’s not some combination of both, something that can sell, then it’s failed a principle function of engineering.

He admits that part of the appealing in running the Maker13 community is the opportunity to witness the develop of relationships between artists and engineers who may have never spoken before sharing their stories. Hearing these stories and the details behind each creator provides for Riley as much impact as the actual product, in continuing to navigate the creative process.

“There is a stay-at-home mom that can only do that because of what she makes in the shop. Her husband is an architect, and she takes his designs and adds her own stamp. The architect is good with the CAD software, and she wants to do the design aspect,” says Riley “Now she’s taking the classes and she’s doing the operations. It’s evolved to where they can do it together.”

Rise of the Rest

Last month, AOL founder Steve Case brought his Rise of the Rest tour to Southern Indiana, for a stop at Maker13. A Shark Tank style competition, the event is an effort that parallels the central theme from Riley and his space, to foster a community of innovation to enrich local economies. The event saw several competitors, including groups from Maker13, competing to create the most compelling product to appeal to a panel of potential investors. While Inscope Medical Solution took home the win, several competitors from the space made an impact, and were encouraged to continue on their venture, emboldened by the experience.

Riley says, “it was cool to see that they each helped each other set up. They practiced their pitches with one another. It’s a small community, niche group of hardware startups. They’re all working on their own design challenges, and can bounce those off each other. Their challenge to get through the design cycle, they can get from each other.”

An engineer at heart

Now in their second year, Riley and his wife split the daily management of the business, making sure the lights are on and the machinery as available for the incoming startups and creatives that utilize the space. The space has partnered with Ultimaker, a 3D printer manufacturer, who not only helps supply the shop with easy-to-use printers, but which serves as an added revenue stream.

Ultimately, even though Riley remains busy, he is an engineer at heart, and when he can, takes the opportunity to tinker himself, cementing his own role as part of the community that he helps to foster. He divides his time between his family life, his work at Samtec, his continued operations oversight of the Maker Machine, and the Maker13 space, where he teaches courses, manages the website, and tends to any and all maintenance needs. Somehow, he still manages to carve out some time for his own interests, utilizing the space for his own projects as he can.

“I like to do a lot of woodworking. I like to do a lot of reclaimed wood salvage from regional places and turn it into other stuff,” says Riley. ‘It’s a good countermeasure to the day work at Samtech, which deals with microelectronics. It’s a good outlet for an escape kind of thing.”

Photo credit: Josh Hicks/News and Tribune