If you’ve got an idea for a world-beating product, but you don’t quite know how to get it off the ground, you’ll need someone to help you out. Someone who can design a PCB for you before it goes to the factory, write software, establish a proof of concept that you can take to investors, or build a prototype that you can use to iron out the creases before you make that first factory run.
That’s exactly what DefProc Engineering, run by Jen and Patrick Fenner, does. This pair work with clients big and small to make one-off and small-run electronics-based products – and they started out in their local makerspace using the same equipment as the rest of their local maker community.
We spoke to co-founder and managing director Jen Fenner to find out what it takes to go from sharing soldering irons to working on government contracts.
“We started our business in 2010. We didn’t have full-time jobs; we had some money to live on, and we just started. We were only 27, so we didn’t know what we were doing, but we started it in my mum and dad’s spare room.
"We initially had this idea to design a human-powered vehicle – they were all the rage at the time, but there wasn’t a really good, affordable version. So we had this big idea that we were going to produce a human-powered vehicle and design this kit, and we worked on that for about a year or so.
“We found that when it came to building our first prototype, none of the manufacturers would talk to us. They either didn’t get back to us with a quote, or the one that did get back to us took eleven weeks to get the quote, and it was astronomically expensive. So, we decided to scale back.
"We found DoES Liverpool, which had started the year before. Pat went and learned how to use a laser cutter, how to design for laser cutting, how to design for 3D printing, all sorts of little electronic bits. Somebody offered him a piece of work – they asked him about a device they were trying to make, but didn’t know how to get started making it. They had the idea, but they just were having difficulty executing it.
"He started offering advice to people, and eventually they just asked him: ‘would you be able to make it for us?’. We basically set up a business to make things for people within the makerspace. People would come to us and ask us to make things. That’s how it started.
“Our business has changed over time. We still do fundamentally what we did when we were there; we just do it for slightly higher-paying clients, and we’ve got our own equipment now. The shared equipment is good, but you want your own professional tools. We’ve got quite high-end soldering irons now, whereas the space we were in, it was good at the start, having access to all that equipment – I think we actually bought some equipment and put it in the space so everyone could use it. We really loved it there, and we wouldn’t have the business we have now if it wasn’t for us being at DoES Liverpool. They gave us a break.