Northampton Community College’s Fab Lab Contributes to Bethlehem’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

By Kat Schneider on February 4, 2019

It’s not every day a 14-foot dinosaur robot takes to a stage in the Lehigh Valley, but that was the case on Jan. 31 at the Fowler Family Southside Center during the Northampton Community College’s Second Annual Fab Lab Open House.

The mechanical marvel – named Tobor – towered over guests, but he was just a small part of what made the night a success, said the lab’s director, Jeff Boerner.

“It was one of the most amazing nights I have ever had,” Boerner said. “To see that many people pondering ways that they can make things using the education, training, and workspaces the Fab lab offers was extremely gratifying.”

Short for “fabrication laboratory,” the Fab Lab in Southside Bethlehem includes space for everything from woodworking and guitar-making to machining and audio recording. During the open house event, visitors heard from 13 instructors who were on hand in each process area to demonstrate the equipment and talk about programs.

The open house ran from 6 to 9 p.m. and welcomed about 150 guests. Boerner said he saw a sharp increase in attendance over last year’s event. The growth in interest, he said, speaks to the increase in the community’s awareness and involvement in nurturing the region’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“The whole atmosphere of the Lehigh Valley has contributed to the lab’s growth in the past years,” Boerner said. “People have realized what a great place this is. There is a real momentum going on in the Lehigh Valley in all aspects.”

The open house came on the heels of $5 million in renovations to the Southside Center, where the Fab Lab occupies the first floor. Located at located at 511 E. Third St. in Bethlehem, the Center also saw the creation of a new business center and improvements to the exterior to the building during the renovations.

The renovation project was funded in part by a $2.5 million grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The remaining $2.5 million was raised in private funds.

Boerner credits much of the lab’s success to the Northampton Community College’s unwavering support.

“The college really stepped up to the plate, never flinched and found a way to do it,” said Boerner of the Fab Lab’s September renovation. “Other universities or colleges haven’t been able to put that together.”

The Fab Lab was formerly located on the third floor of the building but was relocated to the first floor during the renovations. The relocation allows for much higher visibility among the Center’s visitors and makes a lot of difference for the center in terms of exposure, explained Boerner, who also serves on Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation’s Entrepreneurial Council of the Lehigh Valley.

The popularity of the center is the latest part of a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovation in South Side Bethlehem, which also includes Lehigh University, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ).

The Lab’s equipment can be used not just by students, but also by companies prototyping their products and entrepreneurs trying to advance their startups. Richard Thompson of Factory LLC, a south Bethlehem project designed to lure food and beverage companies to the Lehigh Valley, has already utilized it as well.

“What’s really important is that the Fab Lab stays community-based, we never want it to be completely student-based,” Boerner said. “That’s the true mission of fab lab – to be open to everybody.”

The Follett Family Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and the Fab Lab is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

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