You wouldn't think there was farmland in Shanghai, but here it is: fields of okra and eggplant, wandering chickens, cherry tomatoes dangling from thin, tenacious vines. Behind the fields are tunnel-shaped greenhouses wrapped in sheets of plastic. Roger Mu enters one of them and points at something on the ground.
“See?” He nods. It's a butterfly, flexing its wings on a leaf. “No chemicals.”
Roger Mu, a Texan-born Chinese, is an entrepreneur. The greenhouses are part of Mu's business venture, which provide clients with fresh, chemical-free vegetables every week, curated to their individual cooking habits. Take the “Paul” package for example: about seven kilos of tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and other vegetables for 250 RMB every month.
“It's still a concept,” he says. “And I'm not going to replace commercial farming or anything. But I want to change it.”
Mu's greenhouse concept stemmed from his own needs as an urban farming enthusiast, as well as his involvement in Xinchejian, a makerspace near Jing An Temple. Makerspaces are community centers where tools, space, and knowledge around 'making' are shared. The definition of 'making' is broad; it encompasses any creative endeavor, whether it's writing code, experimenting with food, or building a motion-sensing chandelier. The goal of a makerspace is simple: be a place that empowers people to create.
When Xinchejian was founded in 2010, it was the first of its kind in China. Since then, makerspaces have caught fire all over the country, from Shenzhen to Beijing, Chengdu to Hangzhou. In Shanghai, a multitude of makerspaces have sprung up since China's induction into the maker movement, such as Mushroom Cloud in Pudong, which was opened in 2012 by the open source hardware and robotics provider DFRobot; Fablab-Shanghai, a makerspace at Tongji University; and XinFab, a makerspace next to Xinchejian that was founded in 2013 by Lucio Pentagna Guimaraes who built the space's first 3D printer from scratch. Though the cost of membership varies across different makerspaces, they all offer their members an array of similar benefits, like shared access to different machines and tools or discount prices on workshops.
When Mu discovered Xinchejian in 2010, he was already a maker. By then, he had been growing edible plants in his closet for almost a year, using hydroponic and aquaponic systems he built himself. He isn't an engineer or a botanist by trade – he's an English major. But he loves Mexican food, like pico de gallo, a type of Mexican salsa.
It was his search for jalapeño peppers, one of the salsa's key ingredients, that led Mu to urban farming. He scoured supermarkets all over Shanghai for fresh jalapeño, emotionally prepared to pay up to 250 RMB per kilo – “the price of steak.” When he couldn't find any, he concluded that the only reasonable thing to do was to grow it himself. He started researching hydroponics, a method of raising plants without soil, and built his own equipment using plans from the internet. Soon, he was building things that weren't even documented online.
“The kind of innovating that's fun to me is going on Google, finding something and typing it in, and realizing that nothing of that sort exists,” he explains. “You've reached this sort of edge of what is known and what is being done. That is an exciting feeling that most people never get.”
At Xinchejian, Mu's urban farming projects occupy a brightly lit corner by the entrance. As the leading expert on urban farming at Xinchejian, Mu doesn't necessarily benefit from any knowledge sharing at the space. He's often the one giving workshops on hydroponics or advice on how to grow mint and spring onion in your studio apartment. For Mu, the draw to Xinchejian is its community.
“When you first come to Shanghai, you sort of have like these drinking buddy friends,” Mu recalls from his early urban farming days. “It's very much about grabbing on to anyone who's remotely similar to you. In that way, you make quick friends.”
“That group of friends didn't get it. I got this impression that I was weird in a bad way,” he says. “Well, I'm not weird. I'm making something out of nothing. I'm growing a plant. I'm providing a thing you can't even buy.” At Xinchejian, Mu felt a camaraderie around the idea of making. Instead of dismissing his initiatives, members and visitors alike were curious and fascinated. They asked questions; they engaged.
It's also here at the makerspace that Mu became an entrepreneur. Together with David Li, a cofounder of Xinchejian, he began renting a greenhouse and employing farmers in Pujiang Zhen, a suburb in southern Shanghai.
“At that point, I wasn't even thinking about it as a business,” he says. But what Mu wanted – a greenhouse with employed farmers – slowly turned into a concept for something other people might want as well.
“That happens about once or twice a year at Xinchejian,” says Lionello Lunesu, another member of the space. He's talking about “hobby projects” that turn into products for a startup, like the one he and two other members, Berni War and Antoine Cote, are developing. It's called the ELLA Assistant. It's a small, rectangular gadget about the size of a golf ball that displays customizable smart notifications, like a reminder to bring an umbrella to work or an alert to tell a loved one you're on your way home.
“I had always tinkered at home,” Lunesu says. “And I have the scars to prove it - the burns.” He grew up in a small town near Maastricht, Holland and was the kind of kid who soldered for fun and stole chemicals from school in order to reproduce explosive reactions from his chemistry textbook.
He met War at Xinchejian, where War was involved in a project called AAAIIIRRR, an open source air purifier. Driven by a desire to provide actionable information to users without depending on a smartphone, War came up with ELLA at a hackathon. Shortly afterwards, Lunesu joined him, pulling in Cote, an old coworker from Microsoft. Using spare parts lying around Xinchejian, along with various tools and machines at the space, Lunesu and the other cofounders were able to create an early prototype of ELLA at a low cost. In addition, being able to draw from the experience of more seasoned hardware makers was invaluable for the cofounders of ELLA, who were “starting from zero.”
“This is something I've never done before,” Lunesu says. “I had done software all the way since I dropped out of university.” He was about to leave Shanghai when the opportunity to work on ELLA emerged. The chance to learn – about electronics, manufacturing, making a product, crowd funding – made him stay.
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There are no hard numbers that prove a relationship between makerspaces and startups; nevertheless, a link between the two is widely and confidently assumed. In China, this means that makerspaces have been received with enthusiasm and generous support from the government. For example, in 2011, Shanghai officials announced a plan to build 100 'innovation houses', each eligible for up to 50,000 RMB in funding. This year in January, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a high profile visit to Chaihuo, a well-known makerspace in Shenzhen, where he was named as Chaihuo's first new member of 2015.
A lot of the rhetoric around the maker movement in China centers around the Chinese economy. Makerspaces are commonly viewed as a solution to the dearth of local innovators and homegrown entrepreneurs that are necessary to move China's economy away from manufacturing – a radical shift from “Made in China” to “Made by China.”
But makerspaces are wary of the influence that startups could have on their community's culture. At Xinchejian, commercial enterprise is strictly secondary to making.“If VCs walked in, we tend to shoo them away,” says Lunesu. “The number priority is to be a space where people can do what they want to do. And that should not have any commercial incentive.”
Still, projects that grow into ventures are invigorating for the makerspace, a validation of collaborative learning and making. “It's great for all the members to see that some of the crazy ideas they have might actually be something that people want,” Lunesu says, laughing.
“But there has to be a maker story. Just being another company making an app doesn't cut it – it really [has to be] a hobby project that became a startup,” he says. “These are stories that people want to hear.”
Originally published in City Weekend, August 2015.