Electric cars and coffee tables: The startups combining tech and tradition at Melbourne’s “very necessary” Space Tank Studio

Space Tank Studio

Jaunt co-founders Dave Budge and Marteen Burger. Source: Supplied.

At first glance, Space Tank Studio looks like just another workshop on an industrial street in North Coburg. There’s a circular saw, worktops strewn with tools and drawings, and something I later learn is a laser cutter; AC/DC is blaring.

But look a little closer and there’s intricately crafted woodwork spirals with neon lights running through them, a laptop looking small next to a huge robotic contraption and panels painted in bright colours. Upstairs is artsy, with quirky shelves, comfy sofas, studios and a tastefully cheery paint job.

Space Tank is an incubator space for startups that manufacture, giving early-stage founders access to the kinds of equipment and machinery they might not have had the resources to get their hands on otherwise.

Startups pay for space on a per-metre basis, or purchase a monthly pass giving them use of the equipment. The incubator strives to grow in line with demand, so there’s typically no waiting list, and the door is open for suitable entrepreneurs.

It’s a space where the traditional worlds of mechanics, woodwork and engineering combine with the startup spirit; where entrepreneurs are getting their hands dirty to solve big problems, make other manufacturers’ lives easier, or simply create beautiful things.

Speaking at an event to commemorate the incubator’s fifth anniversary this week, founder Holger Dielenberg said Space Tank provides a kind of buffer for product and hardware startups, giving them a place to grow without some of the overheads traditionally associated with manufacturing.

“We try and accommodate them until they are ready to leave, because at that point, usually they have to be ready to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy their own machinery, rent their own factory, and that’s a massive move for a manufacturing startup,” Dielenberg said.

The idea is at Space Tank, they can “prove that their concept is viable, that they’re meeting a genuine gap in the market and that there’s demand for what they’re producing”, he said.

Tools of the trade

Electric vehicle startup Jaunt is a resident in the space. Founded just a few months ago, the company has only been in the incubator since August.

Co-founders Dave Budge and Marteen Burger are upcycling old and battered four-wheel-drives, pulling out the old engines and fuel systems and converting the cars into electric vehicles available to hire throughout Australia on a car-sharing platform.

Budge tells StartupSmart the idea is to create accessible and easy-to-drive electric vehicles that “fit the Australian imagination, or desire, for what a car should be”.

It’s early days for Jaunt and “we don’t have a lot of stuff here yet,” he says. In fact, although Jaunt’s workspace has plenty of room to strip and rebuild a ute, at the moment all it contains is a wheel.

For these founders, however, the incubator space has already been instrumental. It’s all about having access to the tools, Budge says.

“We can have a great idea, but if we have no manufacturing facility or workshop, then what do we do?” he says.

“That’s a huge barrier for anyone to get into proving whether their product works or not.”

Budge’s professional background is in creative design and filmmaking, and his previous mechanical experience has been hobbyist tinkering.

“Having access to the equipment, and people who know intimately how to use it and who are willing to spend their time helping you do that as well is invaluable,” he says.

“It would have taken 10 times longer if we didn’t have this kind of space.”

Design by Storm founder Dani Storm.

In many ways this is a space focused on practical work. But there’s an element of art here too.

Dani Storm, founder of Design by Storm, uses computer-aided design (CAD), 3D printing and laser cutting to create innovative furniture designs. Her coffee table prototype is designed to look like it shouldn’t be stable enough to stay upright. Yet, magically, it does.

About 70% of what Storm does is not traditional ‘craft’, she says.

The design, ideation, and experimentation with technologies like computer numerical control (CNC), laser cutting and robotics, is all “programming that needs to happen on the computer”, she tells StartupSmart.

“We use very little traditional craftsmanship,” she says.

“The research, the development, the technology … having those tools can push the types of objects we make. That’s really what I’m most interested in,” she says.

Storm’s collection is all about clean lines and shiny surfaces, but she also has a timber coffee table in her portfolio.

“That one is quite interesting because it’s quite a traditional material, but the way we made it was using CNC and the CAD and so on, so it looks like it’s beautifully hand crafted but it’s actually all made by tech,” she says.

A little help from my friends

Storm’s tech-savvy design process was also helped along by fellow Space Tank resident and CNC startup Sean & Horn, run by co-founders Sean Kellett and Billy Horn.

Their setup is “essentially a router guided by robotic rails”, Horn tells StartupSmart.

“It’s a traditional tool in some senses, but it’s guided by very precise technology,” he adds.

Using this tech, Sean & Horn has been able to provide services to the other startups in the space, cutting precise and clean shapes for Storm’s furniture, and precise cabling channels for another founder who makes woodwork lamps.

Making these connections and sharing skills is another bonus of working in close quarters — especially when you’re dealing in such hands-on skills.

“Everyone really does support each other and has a lot of time for one another, just to help with little bits and pieces, bringing everyone’s expertise together,” Kellett says.

This bringing together of different mindsets and expertise is more than just a good thing, he adds.

“It makes things possible that would potentially be impossible.”

Storm says she has leaned on her fellow co-founders at “every stage with the business”.

“If there’s anything I’m not sure about … someone in Space Tank will know,” she says.

“Within minutes, you would have an answer to something.”

Equally, for her, having other people around is simply a point of practicality.

“My work is also really heavy, and so at times I just physically can’t lift it on my own — I can just ask someone to give me a hand,” she says.

Space Tank Studio.

Communal area at Space Tank Studio.

Creativity is infectious

Of course, being around other startup founders isn’t all about sharing practical tips and carrying coffee tables. There’s also an energy in the space, as well as communal coffee supplies.

“There’s water-cooler talk — or whatever you want to call it — when we’re in the kitchen making coffee together,” Horn says.

“You can share your experience, even if it’s where you get your plywood or resin from. It’s a shared experience,” he adds.

Just being around other creative people is “super inspiring and necessary”, Storm says.

“There are no limits to what we put into our work, and there are high moments and low moments, and being in a collective space like this you learn that it’s okay to fail and try again, and try again, and prototype again,” she adds.

For Budge, who’s startup is still in very early stages, it’s also inspiring to be around so many other founders.

“You’ve got a building full of people who are pursuing their dreams in some way. They’ve made an active choice to do something they really, really want to do, and that maybe indicates a certain type of person, but it’s also a certain type of mood and energy that they have,” he says.

“That’s really infectious,” he adds.

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