This post is an adaptation of part of a piece under the title “LECCIONES APRENDIDAS DE UNA DECADA LIDERANDO DOS PROYECTOS DE EMPRENDIMIENTO DIGITAL EN EL BIERZO Y LEON” that was originally published in the journal from the Ministry of Industry, Economy and Tourism “Economía Industrial 417: Emprendimiento Digital”
When Atom met Bitsy – Via Negativa – It´s alive!
When Atom met Bitsy
A fab lab  is a digital manufacturing laboratory, i.e. a space equipped with a set of equipment, processes and knowledge where access to means of invention and production is facilitated to society in general, including business. The concept of digital manufacturing is part of the digital revolutions that we have been observing for decades in the fields of communication and computing and which now has an impact on the physical world, in the world of things.
Digital manufacturing also represents the promise of personal manufacturing: to make available to anyone the ability to design and produce physical objects at the click, similar to the appearance of the personal computer and the word processor that enabled anyone to write and print documents a few decades ago. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this is that of 3D printers, which allow the design and manufacture of small objects, usually plastic, to diverse audiences of any age.
The fab lab concept arises around 2001 by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. As recounted in his book “FAB” , Professor Gershenfeld promoted a course named “How To Make (Almost) Anything” targeting a small group of his Center For Bits and Atoms students to train them for the use of manufacturing equipment in their field of research.
To much of his surprise more than a hundred people from all over MIT enrolled and, in addition, “there were as many artists and architects as there were engineers.” But perhaps he found it even more surprising the motivation for which these people enrolled: for the most part their intention was not to apply knowledge in the field of research, but to create objects that they always wanted to have, but that did not exist.
The success of this program encouraged Professor Gershenfeld to create “field” fab labs to explore the applications and implications of digital manufacturing for people who do not enter MIT, so that with financial assistance from the National Science Foundation (NSF) fab labs are established in downtown Boston, India, Costa Rica, Norway and Ghana. From there, interest in fab labs is aroused internationally, so that an expansion similar to that of Moore’s Law  for the number of transistors in a processor has been observed. Today there are more than 1,800 fab labs worldwide .
TELICE is a family-owned SME company, a prime contractor operating in the railway sector and closely linked to the province of León (Spain) through shareholders and most of the company’s workforce. At the end of 2010, the company’s management fortuitously discovered the concept of fab labs and set a goal of promoting a fab lab in León that opened its doors at the end of 2011.
The decision to promote a fab lab is part of a process initiated by the former RENFE (before its division between RENFE operator and ADIF) in the mid-1990s for the modernization of its supply chain. This policy allows suppliers in the sector, regardless of their size, to be exposed and end up familiar with international ISO standards for quality management, environmental management, occupational risk prevention, the EFQM management model and, finally, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility.
While it is true that this modernization stimulus definitively lost its momentum when the division of the old RENFE and ADIF occurs and it´s management style becomes more authority-like rather than business-focused, the awareness and values that TELICE had developed in previous years prevailed, although already without and exogenous pressure to commit resources in the development of these policies.
This combination of, on the one hand, awareness-raising and acquired values and, on the other hand, this lack of exogenous pressure, led to the lack of exogenous pressure for the management of TELICE to have the time to meditate thoroughly on what was the Corporate Social Responsibility strategy that was best suited to its nature and business context. It was concluded to establish three criteria:
- That it should be related, even if only tangentially, to the activity of the company. That is, not to develop actions within the framework of Corporate Social Responsibility that had nothing to do with the activity and nature of our company.
- That it should have the potential to create a solid, real impact on the social environment of the company. In a territory subject to the pressures of depopulation, aging, high youth unemployment and de-industrialization, having an impact -to us- was acting on the economy structure and production factors.
- That the company should get some kind of return, even if it was uncertain, long-term and in non-financial terms.
These criteria ruled out several more accessible and commonly adopted options by other companies such as sponsorship of charitable causes, cultural, sports or recreational activities. However, the Company Management understood that those actions did not resonate with either the values or the company’s fundamental mission, nor did they have the potential to provide any kind of return for our stakeholders and, therefore, the decision was to do nothing.
On the other hand, when several years after establishing these criteria, we discovered the concept of fab labs we immediately recognized that establishing one of these laboratories in the city of León (Fab Lab León) perfectly met the criteria that we had established:
- An activity related to several of the technical disciplines that we develop within the company, such as manufacturing, electronics, programming and automation of sensors and devices
- A potential for social impact in León, where the vast majority of the company’s employees were based (at the time), around several nuclear issues: awakening scientific and technological vocations, providing training in new technologies, strengthening the local ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, projecting a different (modern, innovative) image of the city nationally and globally (“putting Leon on the map”)
- A potential return for the company on at least the following forms:
- We hoped that the fab lab would act as a hub for local talent attraction that would facilitate recruiting talent for the company
- The company’s exposure to new technologies such as 3D printing, knowledge to projects developed around the world and an international network of contacts
- Access to a resource for product innovation, design and manufacturing
- The development of the relational and reputational capital of the company
The project was articulated through the creation of its own legal entity, the TELICE MAGNETIC ANOMALY Foundation (TMA). After almost 10 years of Fab Lab Leon’s journey we can say that we have been able to meet many, but not all, of the expectations we had created.
Fab Lab León has become one of the local references for fostering scientific vocations and education with its workshops and programs: “fabitos”, “Poderosas”, “SteamKids”  and “Young Makers” , reaching dozens of kids. Thousands of people have participated in various open activities that we have promoted to democratize science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, among which are the three Mini Maker Faire  that we have sponsored and organized with the collaboration of other local actors.
Both the “Poderosas” programme and our usual collaboration in various national and international initiatives (e.g. “Día de la Mujer y la Niña en la Ciencia”  have enabled us to have an impact on gender gap reduction efforts in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors.
We have collaborated with other entities such as the Cámara de Comercio de León, the local chapter of The Red Cross or the Orange Foundation  to improve the employability of vulnerable groups. We have also collaborated in various initiatives to encourage local entrepreneurship, such as the promotion of Young Talent  with the collaboration of the Leon institute of Economic Development, Training and Employment (ILDEFE).
Our space has also had a notable impact on the dissemination and growth of the “maker” movement  at the national level. Having been one of the pioneering Fab Labs in Spain and being a node of the distributed international training programs FabAcademy  and Fabricademy  has led many of the key figures from this movement and several of those responsible for digital manufacturing spaces in Spain to have completed their training in León, and that our fab lab is also recognized within the international network of fab labs .
Internally, the fab lab has been used by the group’s companies to carry out proofs of concept and prototyping of various products, but above all, it is a window into the world that provides us with a source of contacts, experiences, knowledge and projects at the international level that we carefully curate to extract what may be relevant to our business.
While the fab lab has provided us with some external visibility as it has been distinguished by several awards by national entities such as the newspaper La Razón  or such as the Monteleón Foundation  . The truth is that return at the reputation and brand level is probably much lower than that of bigger corporations in relative to our size and effort invested. Nor have we succeeded in the role that the fab lab could have as a talent attractor and our brand as an employer. This has, in our view, been due to the inability and inconvenience to articulate a medium-term strategy arising from the public infrastructure budget cuts of the last decade. The downturn of the railway business resulted in the fact that it was not possible to incorporate people into our team in the medium term and, on the other hand, it derived the resources needed to sustain a long-term sustained brand strategy, which is the only possible and effective one to improve the brand relevance of a small company like ours.
We also think that we have barely been able to develop yet the potential impact of the fab lab in innovation and entrepreneurship, but we have learned in these years that this is something we cannot do alone. Although, certainly, Spain has taken important steps over the past decade in terms of the fabric for entrepreneurship support (contests, incubators, shuttles, aid, venture capital funds, entrepreneur support offices, etc.), this fabric is aimed at helping those who have already taken the step or have an entrepreneurial project.
On the other hand, little is done in what seems to us to be an at least as important aspect, as is that of stimulus, training and support to the individuals and innovators and entrepreneurial people. To better explain this let us use an analogy comparing the world of entrepreneurship and innovation with that of sport. The entrepreneurship ecosystem that is now in place is analogous to high-performance centres and other entities supporting elite athletes. But the quarry of elite athletes is grassroots sports. At the beginning of the trajectory of each elite athlete there are thousands of people who practiced and trained with more or less modest expectations: exercise, compete, become a professional athlete, etc.
This is what we consider to be pending subject at the national level, investing in the quarry of innovation and entrepreneurship so that hundreds of thousands of people perceive the realization of STEAM projects as one who takes children to a party on Friday afternoons or goes for a walk on Saturdays: as a pass-time or learning, as a hobby, as a form of self-realization or personal expression, as a way to acquire goods or services saving money, or for the ultimate purpose of developing an invention or one day becoming an entrepreneur.
These investments need, among other things, the infrastructure and processes necessary to support that “funnel” in which young people and children enter and from which tomorrow’s entrepreneurs leave. Just as children and young people have parks, sports and recreation facilities, they should have facilities that encourage creativity, the exchange of ideas and knowledge and support their development and concreteness in proof of concept, prototypes or even small products. This is really the role that spaces like Fab Lab León must play, as part of an ecosystem of innovation and broader entrepreneurship that is focussed on the development of the talent quarry.
We think it is relevant to indicate that all the activity we have developed in all these years has been funded by TELICE and the services provided by the foundation without, to date, resorting to any kind of public assistance. This was a deliberate decision that was taken with the aim of guaranteeing the autonomy and independence of the foundation that we enjoy today.
From this position of autonomy and independence we have recently launched collaborations for specific projects with other entities that will receive public support. In October of this year we will launch a specific powerful program for girls belonging to vulnerable groups with the collaboration of the University of Burgos funded by FECYT. And together with an international consortium we have been beneficiaries of European Commission aid under the H2020 framework for the Shemakes  project that leverages on our Poderosas programme with the aim of reducing the gender gap in innovation in the textile sector.
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab_lab
 Neil Gershenfeld, “FAB, The coming revolution on your desktop – from personal computers to personal fabrication”
 Wikipedia, Moore’s Law, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law
 Fablabs.io https://www.fablabs.io/labs/map
 Fab Lab León website, https://www.fablableon.org/
 Young Makers website, https://jovenesmakers.wordpress.com/
 Mini Maker Faire León website, https://makerfaireleon.com/
 Leonoticias, “Science, girl and woman are powerful” https://www.leonoticias.com/leon/201702/09/ciencia-nina-mujer-poderosas-20170209165120.html?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F
 Orange Foundation, Breakers Project, http://www.fundacionorange.es/fablabs/breakers/
 Jesús Lopez de Uribe,”lldefe and Fab Lab León promote a cross-border competition of business projects based on 3D Printing” in iLeon. https://www.ileon.com/actualidad/tecnologia/101210/lldefe-y-fab-lab-leon-promueven-un-concurso-transfronterizo-de-proyectos-empresariales-basados-en-impresion-3d
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maker_culture
 Fabricademy, https://textile-academy.org/
 FabFoundation, https://fabfoundation.org/global-community/
 J.D.C, “Your Economy Awards 2015: Initiative, Innovation and Tenacity, Main Values of Winners” in La Razón. https://www.larazon.es/economia/premios-tu-economia-2015-iniciativa-innovacion-y-tenacidad-principales-valores-de-los-ganadores-NF9700618/
 Leonoticias, “‘FabLab León’ and ‘I’m Ethical’, 2019 Social Entrepreneurship Awards from the Fuldefe and Monteleon foundations”. https://www.leonoticias.com/leon/fablab-leon-ethical-20190516174818-nt.html
 Website of the “Shemakes” project. https://www.shemakes.eu/