A Cohort Q&A

Seeing as the application deadline for Cohort is fast approaching (9th November!), we asked Garth, one of our members, to interview strategic director Nat Hunter about the future of Cohort – what it is, what it will be, and how to apply. It sums it up pretty well:

Garth: Hey Nat.

Nat: Hi Garth.

G: So… what is Cohort?

N: Cohort is Machines Room’s pre-incubator programme – it’s for people who may want to eventually do an incubator or a crowdfunding campaign, but haven’t reached that stage yet. You’re still working out the shape of your business, and need some space and support to do that. Having said that, you’re not required to go on and join an incubator afterwards – you may well be ready to fully launch your business by the end of Cohort!

G: Ok, so it’s for someone who has a product or idea, but hasn’t got round to thinking through their business model?

N: That’s a good way of putting it – someone who has a product or idea and would like to set up a business but may not have made that commitment yet. Or someone with an existing small business but with a new idea or product. Also, one of the key criteria for these products or businesses is that they have some kind of prototyping, making or manufacturing need. We have FabLab facilities here so all our existing Cohort members incorporate making in their businesses.

G: And how will Cohort help me shape my business model? Why shouldn’t I just sign up to any makerspace and just use their machines?

N: Being part of Cohort helps you in so many different aspects of development. The space and tools are just the start. People are making stuff around you all day, but they’re also sharing ideas, tips, and tricks of the trade all day. And those people have huge amounts of knowledge between them – so the community here is another huge asset. The existing Cohort works in electronics, education, circular economy, manufacturing, knitting, accessible design, wheelchair design, redistributed manufacturing, the list goes on. So you can see we’ve cultivated a huge support network, which is in some ways more valuable that any one machine.

G: What if I’m starting a charity? Or applying for grants to do an art/design project?

N: If what you’re working on has some relationship to making or manufacturing then you’d fit right in. We support projects that have positive social or environmental impact. This definition stretches to encompass all sorts of projects. So if your art or design project was, for instance, a speculative project about an interesting social or environmental issue, and you needed to make something physical to communicate that idea, then Cohort might well be the place for you. We like to have an eclectic mix of people; it’s one of our strengths. When you see an origami expert partner with an wheelchair design project, or a 3D printing expert work with a wood craftsperson then that’s where the magic happens.

G: Sounds like being in the space a lot is important, what if I can’t be there all the time?

N: Being in the space is really crucial, as it’s where you will learn the most. You will get keys so can come 24/7 but one of our requirements for the programme is that you are here during working hours for at least 3 days per week.

G: Ok, but how do people on Cohort make money if they haven’t started a business yet?

N: Another good question. Some people have part-time jobs elsewhere, others with good making skills work on our fabrication jobs. Some have borrowed money or applied for additional funding. Quite a few are not at the most lucrative stages of their projects, but working hard on something they love seems to be energising and they are focussing on getting to a point where they can become financially solvent. As a way of encouraging you to push your project to the next stage, we also consider other options such as taking a percentage of funds raised through crowdfunding campaigns or freezing a pay cycle until a grant comes through.

G: I really like the idea of having access to huge amounts of knowledge through Cohort – how does the knowledge sharing occur and is there a requirement of me to share knowledge?

N: Sharing knowledge usually happens organically – if you’ve got skill and expertise in an area, and a fellow member of Cohort asked you for advice or help, then yes, we would expect that you would want to help them! If you want to formalise this a bit more we also have regular ‘Show Tell Discuss’ sessions, where the group and MR team sit down together and think through a single project. We also have business advice tutorials. There’s no obligation, but a successful community works when everyone chips in.

G: What kind of business advice?

N: We think it’s important to set up a business that really works for you. You’re going to be working super hard on this, so it’s crucial to get it right. We think it’s important that your business is feasible, realistic, and also aligns with your values. This is why have programmed themed events alongside Cohort, such as the Kickstarter talk series, which is designed to inform your business model choices.

G: Is there anything that would make my application stand out?

N: We’ve got a great panel of judges on our selection board, from many different disciplines, which means we’re open to applicants from very diverse backgrounds. One of the key criteria is that you are committed and focussed to social or environmental impact, and are passionate about communicating this through your business. If you just want to manufacture a nice looking table, then Cohort is probably not a good match for you. However, if the table was made in a way that radically reduces waste, or is adjustable for wheelchair users, has a circular economy or social business model behind it, then please apply!

G: So there also has to be some critical aspect to Cohort projects? What would your dream Cohort project be?

N: I’m aware that critical is a word that can be misunderstood. We’re not going to criticise, but we will be thinking about each project’s value in a sociopolitical context. Our dream Cohort project is something new, that no one’s done yet, that is delightful and that improves the world, even in some small way.

G: Is there a success story from the current Cohort?

N: Our current Cohort are all examples of this. Kniterate are making a knitting machine that no one’s ever made before. It’s basically 3D printing for knitting which will radically reduce waste and empower people to make locally, but share designs globally. Disrupt Disability are making a modular wheelchair which will give wheelchair users all sorts of function and style options, as well as radically shifting social perception of what it means to ‘wear’ a wheelchair.

G: Thanks, I’m super excited now! How do I apply?

N: The application deadline is midnight 9th Nov and Cohort starts on 20th Nov. If you’ve not been to Machines Room come to the Kickstarter talk Ethical Electronics next Wednesday 8th Nov to get the vibe of the place. Good Luck!