Features Ryan Finnigan of Durango’s MakerLab

8-Minute Listen

Durango’s MakerLab is teaming up with Fort Lewis College and a small army of volunteers to produce protective equipment for local hospitals. Here’s how this rural makerspace transformed their day-to-day operations overnight and will soon produce $2.5 million worth of medical supplies.


Think about it in the context of the fact that us a tiny little makerspace groups of volunteers, just 100 members, one employee, couple other employees in powerhouse that we somehow were able to get together, organize and will create, distribute over $2.5 million worth of medical equipment potentially in the next four weeks. 

Margaret: This is Startup Colorado.  We work with change agents across the state who are dedicated to building for rural Colorado. The communities are small but their stories are big.  

I’m Margaret Hedderman and today we’re taking a look at how one rural makerspace has transformed, virtually overnight, into a medical equipment manufacturer powered by a small, dedicated staff and a growing army of volunteers. I’m speaking, of course, about the MakerLab at the PowerHouse Science Center in Durango. 

The MakerLab is basically a community workshop with wood and metal working tools, industrial sewing machines, and 3D printers. It’s a place for people to invent and build whatever comes to mind like potato guns and robot couches, whatever that is. 

Late one night, a few weeks before the crisis really set in, Ryan Finnegan the Director of the MakerLab, was doing some research on this virus. He looked at how other countries were responding, how well their healthcare system was coping, and, inevitably, fatality rates. 

Ryan: I started digging a little deeper and then had that eureka moment after a night or so of research of like, oh, wow, this is gonna be bad.

Margaret: Ryan met with the Powerhouse member council and staff shortly after. 

Ryan: I sat down with them and I kinda was like, you know, we got to do something.

Margaret: Initially, they planned to design and produce ventilators – one item we’ve heard about again and again as states scramble to purchase more. Ryan jumped into his favorite maker forums where many people were already trying to prototype new ventilators. He spoke with doctors and other medical professionals. 

Ryan: And as we listen to them to realize that our kind of initial engineering minds of like, we’re gonna solve the most complicated problem is probably useless thing for us. And we soon became aware that was the PPE stuff.

Margaret: That’s Personal Protective Equipment. 

Ryan:  You know, of course, we’re learning the terminology through this process, right?

Margaret: Ryan and his team turned to local healthcare professionals at San Juan Basin Health to find out what their most pressing needs were. Where was the supply chain broken? What couldn’t they get access to?

Ryan: So we attacked this in a pretty organized fashion and tried to identify the low hanging fruit, um, and other things that we could do quickly. And get things out. And what we prototyped first were face shields and this is as we were interfacing with the medical community and really understanding what their interactions were and kind of what are the things that are gonna really help.

Margaret: From there, they began developing powered air purifying respirators, known as a PAPRs. It’s basically a face shield that’s enclosed by a full hood that drapes over the shoulders. The airflow system pushes air out from inside the hood. 

Ryan: These PAPR machines are kind of the holy grail because it gives a full protection and if you make enough of the hoods to go with the units, the mechanical units, then they can have a decontamination process and sterilized in between and really protect everyone not just the ER doctors but the CNAs and nurses and everyone being exposed.

Margaret: The MakerLab, in partnership with the Fort Lewis College engineering and physics shop, will produce equipment for medical care providers in Durango, Cortez, Farmington, NM and even Shiprock. 

There was already a local sewing community trying to produce face masks, so the MakerLab helped get them organized. 

Ryan: We did volunteer request forms, got that out. We knew that we had to do this correctly, and we had to maximize the impact. And we could only do that if we worked together and made sure that we were fielding the exact needs and requests and that we’re using the resources and materials in the most effective way. And so we got all crews like that they’re making these gowns now out of tyvek, which means they can be rapidly sterilized… And that’s what we’re making our PAPR hoods out of today. So we just water jet cut the patterns for the PAPR hoods yesterday. We were able to stack 250 layers of this stuff. It was like four inches thick and cut it all at once in an hour and a half for 240 units and now they’re already out in the community and being sewn together.

Margaret: The stakes couldn’t be higher for the MakerLab. Ryan and his team were recently informed that their efforts are so essential, that they will literally save lives. 

The speed at which the MakerLab was able to ramp up production of face shields, hoods, even gowns is astonishing. The MakerLab is located inside the PowerHouse Science Center, which is a big brick building with an old smokestack. It sits beside the Animas River Trail, where cyclists and runners breeze past throughout the day. 

A small team runs their day to day operations, which under normal circumstances, includes events, workshops, and activities for students. But they were in no way setup to produce medical equipment to pandemic scale. 

Ryan: There’s no roadmap for anything like this, you know, you don’t have an organization with four employees and a handful of dedicated volunteers generally go from providing you know, a cool inspiring kids towards science with science exhibits and, and making robots and, you don’t really generally transition an organization like that to being a rapid prototyping, design, development and scaled manufacturing organization in the span of five days.

Margaret: Ryan says they have over 100 volunteers either directly helping manufacture or delivering supplies, providing food, anything they can do to help. 

The startup cost for materials was initially funded out of the team’s own pockets. They now have a GoFundMe page to raise $100,000 worth of materials to keep up production. 

Ryan:  In the next four weeks, if we do what we can do, we get the money coming in and we can buy the materials… We can potentially produce and distribute and I don’t mean potentially, it’s happening. We can produce over $2.5 million worth of medical supplies in that period of time.

Margaret: The MakerLab team is pulling long hours right now, producing as much medical equipment as they can before local hospitals become overwhelmed with new cases. Ryan says they won’t stop. 

Ryan: I think it’s a part of us as humans, we have this deep sense of community and care and love for each other. And I think that in the time of crisis, we’re willing to do what’s necessary to step up. 

Margaret: We’ll leave you with that for today. If you want to learn more about the MakerLab or support their GoFundMe, we’ll include links on our website. If you’re a maker, Ryan says they’re sharing designs and processes with the online maker community.

As always, we encourage you to submit your stories. If you know of an entrepreneur who is responding to this challenge in an unexpected and creative way, let us know. We’d love to tell their story. Email your ideas to startupco@colorado.edu


At Startup Colorado, our mission is to demonstrate that rural entrepreneurship will ignite a culture of potential, empowering people and places to thrive and define their own future.  Join us today: startupcolorado.org

Startup Colorado is housed within the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado School of Law, and funded by the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, The Foundry Group, Zoma Lab, and Visa. 

Important links:

Four Corners Covid Response Team GoFundMe
Fort Lewis College Plays Critical Role in Civic Action
PowerHouse Science Center
The MakerLab