Portland, OR, June 18, 2014 – The Lemelson Foundation, the world’s leading funder of invention in service of social and economic change, today announced it will play a founding role in the establishment of a first-of-its-kind professional engineering and prototyping space in Nairobi, Kenya. The initiative, called Gearbox, will cater to scalable, invention-based enterprises aiming to prototype and manufacture world-class products that address the needs of underserved Africans.
The Lemelson Foundation’s $90,000 grant will be among the first funding for Gearbox. The U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID is also expected to make a grant to help Gearbox with startup costs.
“We are thrilled to be early investors in Gearbox,” said Carol Dahl, executive director of The Lemelson Foundation. “We are confident that Gearbox will transform the environment for invention in East Africa. It will provide a much-needed space for inventors to talk, build, test, and ultimately take their ideas to market. We anticipate that inventions born at Gearbox will make people’s lives better and bolster local economies for generations to come.”
Gearbox fills a critical need for a design and prototyping space in East Africa. Throughout the region, there is a growing culture of designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who are constrained by lack of skills training and access to quality tools and materials. As a result, the best local talent is often forced to design and develop abroad, which increases costs, delays innovation, and spurs brain drain.
Ani Vallabhaneni, co-founder of the Kenyan sanitation startup Sanergy, saw this need firsthand. “The goal of our Fresh Life Toilet was to create a toilet that is affordable and accessible to people living in slums in Nairobi. But we encountered an unexpected setback when we moved to the region – there was no place locally to prototype new designs based on critical feedback from our users. Ultimately, our production manager had to return to the United States to access the tools and equipment we needed. This was a huge waste of time and resources,” explains Vallabhaneni. “Gearbox will allow African engineers, designers, and companies like Sanergy to innovate in Africa.”
Gearbox will support a 10,000 sq. foot workshop space outfitted with an industrial-grade wood shop, metal shop, modeling shop, electronics lab, and general fabrication shop. Additional space will be dedicated to co-working space, classrooms, offices, and event space. Gearbox will also host world-class training with a variety of courses including wood and metal craftsmanship, design, electronics, and entrepreneurship. Membership – set at several price tiers – will be open to the public.
Gearbox is inspired by the success of the technology sector in Kenya, and the central role that collaborative spaces and incubation services have played in that sector’s impressive growth. Nairobi is the tech hub of Africa, and home to companies such as the crisis crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi, agricultural market price finder MFarm, and small business mobile payments provider KopoKopo. These and other companies started in a web of software incubators, the most prominent of which is iHub.
“iHub provided the basis for Ushahidi’s achievements and the success of many other Kenyan companies, but there is no analogous space for inventors of physical things to come together, share ideas, and build things,” confirms Juliana Rotch, co-founder of Ushahidi. “That’s why we – along with partners like iHub and Sanergy – have banded together to address this critical barrier to empowering people to share information that can improve lives.”
The funding from Lemelson will go to Ushahidi to allow the organization and its partners to launch Gearbox and reach a number of critical early milestones, such as incorporating with the IRS, hiring a CEO, and developing a business plan. Gearbox is a consortium of innovative local Kenyan companies including iHub, Ushahidi, BRCK, and Sanergy.
In addition to initial grants from Lemelson and the U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID, Gearbox is expected to draw support from a broad mix of multinational funders across the public, private and philanthropic sectors.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON FOUNDATION
The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives. Inspired by the belief that invention can solve many of the biggest economic and social challenges of our time, the Foundation helps the next generation of inventors and invention-based businesses to flourish. The Lemelson Foundation was established in 1992 by prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. To date the Foundation has made grants totaling more than $190 million in support of its mission. For more information, visit http://lemelson.org.