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Nonprofit's Open Source Designs Reduce Cost Barriers for Startups

Nonprofit's Open Source Designs Reduce Cost Barriers for Startups
Workers load a compressed earth brick press to construct a house. Open Source Ecology's tractor can be seen in the background. / Credit: Catarina Mota/Open Building Institute

For any fledgling entrepreneur, startup costs and access to capital are often immediate barriers to launching. This is especially true in industries that require a lot of heavy machinery, which can quickly become expensive. So what can you do if you're not already immensely wealthy or you don't want to go into a considerable amount of debt to start your productive enterprise?

A project that originated in "The Middle of Nowhere, Missouri," as the founders call it, aims to lower the barrier to entry across a number of industries, all while maintaining a sustainable footprint. It's called Open Source Ecology (OSE), the brainchild of Marcin Jakubowski, founder of the Factor E Farm in Missouri where OSE is based.  

OSE's major project is known as the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), a set of 50 machines essential to creating a modern standard of living, from tractors to 3D printers. On average, a machine in the GVCS costs about one-third in labor and components of what the leading comparable machine costs to purchase, according to the company's founders. Better yet, the parts and power source for every machine is interchangeable; it's designed for efficiency and cheap maintenance, the founders say.

Through the GVCS, entrepreneurs who would otherwise be discouraged or forced to take on debt would be able to cheaply construct and maintain virtually any machine they'd require for their business operations.

"We can provide both the tools and complete package … to create a small enterprise," Jakubowski told Business News Daily. "Whether it's a brick-pressing facility, a lumber production facility or if you want to be a general contractor ... we can provide the [plans for the] machines and the training for those machines."

For example, two practical machines in the GVCS are the common, everyday truck and the compressed earth brick press, which compresses clay to create sturdy building materials out of the earth beneath your feet. Each is powered by another machine in the GVCS, known as the power cube, which employs quick-connect hydraulic couplets to easily attach and detach from each machine. Both the truck and the brick press can run on the very same power cube, and every other machine in the 50-piece set is designed to work this way, Jakubowski explained.

The set includes essential machines for farming, construction, manufacturing and more. All of the blueprints, designs and step-by-step how-to videos are available for free on the organization's website. There's clearly an economic incentive for building these machines, Jakubowski said.

"We have proven that the economic sense is there: The brick press costs $5,000 in materials; the nearest competitor costs you $52,000," Jakubowski said. "We [also] complete [the construction of] these machines in a single day. Swarms of people work on modules in parallel, and then you put it all together. The house still takes us three days right now, but we'll probably get that down to one, too."

The original hope for the GVCS was that people would take the ideas and run with them, replicating the open-source technology and improving on it until it became commonplace. But that didn't happen.

"It's hard to replicate what we do. We thought it would go viral, but we're finding out that nobody takes it to the finish line," Jakubowski said, adding that only about 12 people around the world have replicated the compressed earth brick press. "We have to train people. There's a lot of cultural clash with how people do things normally and how we do them, and so we decided to start this training program."

So, Catarina Mota, Jakubowski's wife, spearheaded the Open Building Institute (OBI), an immersive training program for builders and entrepreneurs that helps spread the knowledge and hands-on experience of replicating Open Source Ecology's machines. The OBI, which is currently raising funds to officially launch, is the Factor e Farm's attempt to spread its model and raise awareness for the potential cost savings it represents. The institute is particularly focused on how to build modular housing using the machines, but it provides a general familiarity with the farm's model.

The OBI program purports to demonstrate how a 700-square-foot home can be built from scratch for 10 percent of the cost of an average new home — in just five days. Jakubowski said he hopes aspiring entrepreneurs will be able to use the techniques to found new businesses.

"We envision that DIY builders and startup entrepreneurs will be our early adopters, and we believe that some of our designs will be adopted by mainstream builders once the open source cost-to-performance advantage becomes clear," he said.

Jakubowski's dream is even larger: Ultimately, he hopes communities will be able to use these techniques to retain the wealth they create and maintain their standards of living in a more ecologically and socially conscious manner.

"Instead of all the products of a given community coming from far, far away, all of the productive capacity [would be] local," he said. "It creates a more transparent system … and more ecological and social integrity. We're setting the foundation where we lay the blueprint down and build our social capital to make the replication possible. My ideal scenario is in two years' time, there are thousands of these products worldwide."

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.