A once promising high-tech business incubator on the third floor of the former Tuolumne General Hospital building in Sonora is now mostly used as office space for local start-ups, nonprofits and the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office.

The InnovationLab, a project of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, opened in August 2014 as a membership-based facility that featured a do-it-yourself fabrication and prototyping studio, maker space, and learning center.

Members paid between $59 and $99 a month initially for 24-hour access to the facility’s multiple workstations, tools, computers, manufacturing equipment, and 3-D printers.

However, the lab’s phone number is now disconnected and its website ( www.myinnovationlab.org ) displays Japanese script that when translated to English in Google Chrome provides anecdotes about parents who have trouble getting their children to brush their teeth.

The reason for the shift from the original model over the past couple of years was because the organization struggled to gain enough paying members to make it viable, said Barry Hillman, a TCEDA board member and executive director of HealthLitNow, a health literacy program that operates out of rented space at the InnovationLab.

“We tried for two years to enhance the membership of the InnovationLab and offered all kinds of incentives for that membership, but it never broke even,” Hillman said. “Frankly, I think it’s being used to much greater value than it ever was as a membership lab.”

Hillman, who spoke by telephone while on vacation with his grandson, said the TCEDA rents the third floor of the hospital from the county and then rents out space to the other groups. He didn’t know exactly how many tenants are renting space at the building.

Larry Cope, executive director of TCEDA, could not be reached for comment.

The TCEDA rents the floor for $6,000 a year, or about 87 cents per square foot.

Funding for the development of the InnovationLab came from the county, which provides 77 percent of the TCEDA’s annual revenue, while additional supplies and funding were provided by the Sonora Area Foundation, Kinematic Automation, and Mother Lode Internet, which has since merged with Cal.net.

Sonora Area Foundation provided a $22,000 grant for equipment. The amount of funding provided by the other sources wasn’t immediately available.

Hillman said all of the high-tech equipment, like 3-D printers that were once housed in the InnovationLab for members, has since been distributed to area schools, including Sonora Elementary School, Tioga High School and Don Pedro High School.

“What do you do with the space? Just close it down?” he asked. “I’m proud, quite frankly, with the way we evaluated the options and came up with something that is sustainable.”

Glen White, who’s in charge of student events for the Superintendent of Schools Office, said he’s had a satellite office at the InnovationLab since 2015 that he’s used less often since space for him became available at the office’s main headquarters at 175 Fairview Lane.

White said it’s nice to have a secure facility like the InnovationLab at his disposal when needed, though the only technology he uses there is a computer and printer.

There didn’t appear to be anyone at the lab on Thursday. No vehicles were parked outside and no one answered the doorbell. The doors are always locked and require an electronic key-card for entry.

Prior to the shift in business model, an open house was held at the facility in February 2016 to showcase some of the projects and gadgets that members were working on at the time.

One of those members, Richard Lundin, was working on 15 projects at the time through his Twain Harte-based nonprofit Wondjina Research Institute. The projects ranged from a restoration of a pre-Columbian era statue to studies on using military-grade drones for fighting wildfires.

Lundin said on Thursday that not long after the open house in February 2016, he came back from a business trip in Arizona and discovered most of the tools and equipment he was using were gone.

After voicing concerns to the lab’s management, Lundin said he received an email from Cope stating that his free membership was being revoked because Cope had received complaints about his behavior.

Cope stated in the email dated June 2, 2016, that Lundin had been warned previously that the lab’s staff, partners and members had issues with how he conducted himself in the lab and when associating himself with the facility in public.

Lundin said he didn’t respond to Cope’s “ridiculous allegations” and moved his projects to space he found in Redwood City.

“For the last four or five months we were there, none of the maintenance was done on the computers and printers,” Lundin said of other issues with how the facility was being operated. “We gathered our stuff up, turned our key in and walked away … It was a great idea, but I don’t know the status of it now.”

Contact Alex MacLean amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.





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