Profile: Alex Bandar of the Idea Foundry

Chloe Teasley
Idea Foundry CEO Alex Bandar

Alex Bandar receives lots of grins and first-name greetings as he breezes through a basement-floor labyrinth of work tables, saws, sanders, welders, a glass-cutting machine, a forge,a 3D printer and countless other tools. Most people associate such an environment with Bandar, the makerspace evangelist of Columbus, but there's much more to him and his venture than a bunch of heavy equipment. On the floor above, people sit at tables in a co-working space, exchanging tips and tricks, surrounded by rows of glass-encased, one-desk offices for infant businesses to grow in.

Together, the machinery downstairs and the incubator-like environment upstairs are the Idea Foundry. But the big building in Franklinton with a first-floor Stauf's is not the Foundry's first home. Ten years ago, it was tucked away on Leonard Avenue on the East Side, and Bandar was working more than double a usual work week at the Foundry and at his day-job with Scientific Forming Technologies Corporation. Those days “almost killed me,” Bandar says. “Five years of hundred-hour work weeks, and I prided myself on being able to put in a 35-hour work week from Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday.”

Bandar's schedule was so tight that he even minimized his eating time. “The engineer in me did some research, found the highest nonfat food calories per-dollar, per-minute prep-time meal that I could make, and it was Bush's Baked Beans and two turkey dogs,” he says. “I could eat it in two minutes for five dollars a day. For months that was my food.”

“But,” he adds, “when you find your passion, it's not work.”

Bandar found his passion during a moment of humiliation. Having just received his doctorate in computational metallurgy from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—“which is a great way to stop conversations at parties”—his sister, an artistic metalsmith, sculptor and professor of jewelry in Vermont, asked him to teach her students about the science behind welding metal. Armed with his new PhD and “giant ego,” Bandar discovered in five minutes that he wasn't able to teach the students anything practical.

“They were all better machinists, welders and blacksmiths than I,” he says. “If I had an idea, maybe I could write a computer program about it or design an alloy, but if my sister or her artist friends had an idea, they just made the damn thing.”

Embarrassed, yes, but also envious, Bandar had seen a vision of a place he desperately wanted for himself. “The dynamic culture of the arts center where she worked was such that people would come from all around the world, spend a month. If you were a photographer, you'd learn to write. If you were a writer, you'd learn to paint. And I loved that creative culture,” he says. “They'd work hard all day, and evenings they'd have beer and barbeque around the campfire. I thought, ‘This is what I want, but I want something like this for makers'—people who are making practical hardware products, software apps. So I rented a small garage, bought a few tools.”

In the Foundry's infancy, Bandar had a hard time figuring out the right business model. After a couple years, he considered downsizing, creating a private co-op or going bigger. He chose bigger and moved into a larger space with rentable studios. Initially, Bandar's dream was for the Foundry to be a nonprofit that could teach children technology through functional art projects. He remembers what his first commercial realtor, Marvin Katz, had to say about that: “What's wrong with making a buck?” Bandar took that comment to heart. “If you're affecting a social mission in an economically-sustainable manner, then you've won,” he says.

It was a pivotal moment for him. Ask Bandar now, and he'll say that the Idea Foundry's for-profit model is a big reason why it still exists. “I started it during the Great Recession, and I didn't want to have to be subject to the vagaries of the philanthropy climate, [and] I always wanted to provide value—if people weren't willing to pay us for the services we were rendering, then we were doing something wrong.”

Bandar doesn't take sole credit for the Foundry's gained traction; he has no problem stating both his strengths and his weaknesses. He claims responsibility for being the Foundry's visionary and for having the grit to follow through, but he recognizes it also took a team of people to compensate for his shortcomings. “Nothing throws your flaws into sharp relief like running a business,” he says. “Focus on what you're good at.”

For instance, Bandar wasn't good at having a plan. But that flaw turned out to be as much a blessing as it was a curse. If Bandar had developed a business plan in the beginning, he says he'd have realized how ridiculous the aspiration was and probably abandoned it. “It's capital intensive—we have expensive tools,” he says. “It's liability intensive—we teach kids how to weld. It's payroll intensive—we need to pay smart people to operate all this equipment safely. And yet our market is artists and students and inventors—they are not people with deep pockets. It's an upside-down business.”

Based on Bandar's description of himself, where he has landed in his career seems a perfect fit. A big-picture thinker and “introverted, science-y geek,” Bandar grew up in Boston, working at his larger-than-life dad's Greek-restaurant-turned-nightclub—an environment that chafed against his personality. Now, though, he says his dad has rubbed off on him.

“I joke, ‘If the apple fell far from the tree, it's been rolling back ever since,' ” he says. “And the mission of the Idea Foundry is to be a machine shop with a maître d'—someone who makes you feel warm and welcome, demystifies the tech. I can absolutely see the analogs generationally.”

His interests have always been a blend of both science and arts. “I'm on the creative side of the engineering world, and I'm on the technical side of the creative world. I was a science-y kind of kid, but always enjoyed writing, drawing—[though] I always did hack stuff together very poorly.”

And it is because of Bandar's “stupendous ignorance about the proper way to do things” that the Idea Foundry was able to materialize, though it was a hustle for many years. “Thank God now I think we're over the hump and have a business model that is not only working for us here, we are now consulting with others on how to replicate it,” he says.

Veteran advertising executive Christopher Celeste, an investor in the Idea Foundry, says Bandar's unique attributes—a combination of unpretentious engineer and entrepreneur—make him an ideal fit for his current role. “It's not every day you find somebody trained as an engineer willing to jump off a cliff as an entrepreneur,” says Celeste, the son of former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste. “His leadership style is really to invite people to participate. Alex's lack of ego has made room for all sorts of collaborators.”

To grow as a leader, Bandar says he's been learning how to live by Aristotle's mantra: “Through discipline comes freedom.” On a broader scale, Bandar says the Foundry's culture has shifted from one of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks to one that executes quarterly goals—but he means to preserve mischievousness as part of the evolving culture.

He has thoughts on the city's culture also, as the question on everybody's lips is, “What should Columbus be?” Bandar doesn't think it should try to become like an existing U.S. city. He says it is impossible for Columbus to be more Portland than Portland, for example. Instead, he vibes with an idea presented by David Staley, a Ohio State University history, design and educational studies professor. “He said our aspirational city should be Renaissance-era Florence, Italy, where in the town square you've got artists, guilds people, apprentices, merchants, scientists, all talking and innovating,” he says. “I think innovation comes when people from different backgrounds meet and talk to each other. You don't know what you don't know.”

That idea may sound familiar—a lot like what goes on inside his makerspace. “I honestly think we can be the capital of the creative culture, the capital of the maker movement,” he adds.

This vision for Columbus sharpened for Bandar during a maker competition in which 300 cities—including the likes of San Francisco, New York City, London and Singapore—went head to head. The Foundry represented Columbus just for giggles—and took home top honors in 3D printing, electronics/programming, and pyrotechnics. “I thought, ‘What is it about Columbus that can not just compete, but win against metropolitan, cosmopolitan cities?' At first I flattered myself into thinking we have the best, most talented people in the world. And there are [talented people],” he says. “But I think we just have a four- or five-year head start on putting all those people under one roof and encouraging them to run and jump and play, share tips and tricks. And when you do that, you can punch above your weight class.”

Celeste thinks the Idea Foundry complements the attitude of Columbus. “It's really powerful for a city like Columbus whose whole storyline is, ‘Tomorrow is going to be a better day.' Nobody in Columbus says, ‘I wish it was 10 years ago.' Everybody is always thinking, ‘What can we do next?' ” he says.

In this community and beyond, Bandar envisions cities in which every neighborhood has a makerspace that is business development center, accelerator and art center all in one. He sees the Foundry as a representor of a new culture of lifelong learning. He believes the only blocks to realizing an idea are access to resources, access to a community of people who can educate on the resources, and a space to do it in. “When you put all that together you afford people the opportunity to experience creative collisions,” he says.

As the Idea Foundry makes its way forward, Bandar finds himself thinking a lot about how to market—the hardest part, he says, of any business. “Especially because this is a business operating in an industry people don't know exists,” he says. “First, you have to educate people that there is a culture of collective making. There is a building where we have tools. You can be a member and here it is in Columbus.”

In 2018, Bandar would like to add to the Foundry's offerings a type of membership for people who want to absorb the culture but not necessarily make anything. He discovered the niche by looking at how Foundry patrons spend their money. Bandar saw that many members were active on the Foundry's closed Facebook page and visiting the space but not making. The coming “explorer membership” will fit these kinds of Foundry members.

“We've been trying to ask, what is it that the creative and techie communities want? Now I think we're having a little more confidence about saying, ‘OK, this is the programming we're going to do for 2018—this is what you want. Prove us wrong by not coming and paying,' ” he says. In addition to the new membership, in 2018 Bandar wants to double down on the classes the Foundry is offering and boost the consulting side of the business. In a couple years, as the building inevitably fills and causes a revenue cap, Bandar wants to explore monetizing online classes that teach muscle memory skills to prepare students for hands-on practice.

On a personal level, Bandar wants to add more making within the Foundry into his repertoire. So far, he's done his “Friday fun-day” three times. His favorite machine is the CNC router, which carves designs into wood. It's one of the first things he bought for the Foundry, even before it was in its new space. “At the old shop, I took out a loan against my 401(k)—against the suggestion of my banker—and bought [it] and had a hell of a lot of fun both assembling it and learning how to use it,” he says.

Although Bandar says discipline has been a learned skill, he seems to thrive on structure. One of his hobbies is to track his life's data, from eating and exercise right down to how much time he wants to have fun or relax. He frequently uses the motley collection of exercise machines in the dimly-lit basement of the Foundry, and he is watching his gluten intake, but he still frequents nearby watering hole Land Grant with Foundry friends.

He recognizes that he may work too much. “People ask me where I live, and I say I sleep in Italian Village. I go there at 11 or 12 at night, crash for six or seven hours, then I'm back here—that's a little unhealthy,” Bandar says. Ever the quote-lover, he adds, “Colin Powell has a great list of management tips and one of them is [to] never let your identity get wrapped up in your job or title. If you're a CEO or general, that can be stripped away in a heartbeat. That's 40 years of your life, then what are you?”

For now, Bandar is not only the founder and CEO of the Idea Foundry, but a champion of, and cheerleader for, the community as well. “Even though Columbus has had its head down, done its work, didn't brag—there is more talent here than you can hide and now it's leaking out,” he says. “I wonder if Columbus will have the same challenge that we at the Idea Foundry had, which is to keep that cool, edgy, humble-but-fun nature while growing into a cosmopolitan city.”


You're from Boston. How did you end up in Columbus?

When I first graduated with my PhD, I got job offers in four cities … Tokyo, [Washington] D.C., Columbus, Mississippi, and Columbus, Ohio. Tokyo was too far; D.C. was too hot, trafficked and expensive; Mississippi was a little too rural for this Yankee. Columbus, Ohio, is the porridge just right. I can still get sushi at 10 o'clock at night and afford my studio apartment.

What were your post-college plans?

I was going to work at Bethlehem Steel, but ... they went bankrupt and now they are a case study in Jim Collins'Good to Great, on how not to run a business. So that taught me I should probably do something innovative. I taught myself Java and thought that I'd get a better job as a computer programmer or web developer than as a PhD metallurgist. That was my first introduction to how easy it is to learn a market-valuable skill just by access to the internet.

What is your best advice for Columbus as it grows?

There's a Midwestern humility that kind of works against its better promotional interests. This is why I loved Mayor Michael Coleman's comment, to encourage Columbus to walk with, in his words, “swagger.” Don't be bashful. When we have kids [at the Foundry], I tell them: “The loudest voice in the room wins out over the smartest voice—be both.”

How do you think artificial intelligence will affect the economy?

Automation and robotics are taking—and are going to take—a lot of jobs. If you look at productivity versus wages for the last 40 years, the graph diverges—I've heard some economists call that “the widening jaws of the snake”—so that means we've been losing manufacturing jobs, which tend to be high-paying jobs. ... A lot of them say they are going overseas—only about 20 percent of jobs are lost overseas; 80 percent of jobs are lost to automation. The gig economy is filling in and over the last 10 years, about 10 million new jobs have been created.

Chloe Teasley is staff writer.