With a head full of educational projects, the founder of the two Indian makerspaces Maker’s Asylum is travelling the world to spread the word. Meeting.
From one airport to another, Vaibhav Chhabra is accumulating miles. A few days after the inauguration of his new makerspace in Delhi, India, early August, the founder of Maker’s Asylum flew to Shenzhen and Singapore. Earlier, last spring, he carried out his “Grand Tour” of the Europe of makers, from Helsinki to Barcelona via Amsterdam. But it was in France that he decided to stay on: in Rennes with the team from My Human Kit who is helping out with Nicolas Huchet’s bionic hand project, in Paris visiting the biohacklab la Paillasse or still in Lyon, with a detour via Toulouse at the Fablab Festival—where we met him.
The reason for this French passion? A cross-partnership with the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) in Paris, the French embassy in India, maker communities and various actors of the academic world to initiate educational and solidarity projects in India and elsewhere.
Somewhat hyperactive, this 27-year-old-engineer in mechanics graduated from the University of Boston, cut his teeth at Eyenetra, a start-up from the MIT Media Lab that develops low-cost ophthalmologic diagnosis tools on smartphone. “To pursue the development of Eyenetra, we decided to settle in Mumbai, because this type of project evidently has more impact in a country like India where access to healthcare is limited, explains Vaibhav Chhabra. And I wanted to go home, do something useful there, that was valuable while using my engineering skills,” adds this native of New Delhi.
Back home, no problem to carry out tests—“we have no lack of patients”. But developing new prototypes is rapidly becoming a headache. “At the time, around 2012-2013, there were no labs in India, no equipment. I went to small repair stores, very rustic, very very low-tech.” A moment of fun and tinkering miles and miles away from the all high-tech labs of Boston, he confides.
A stroke of bad luck will brutally put the projects of Eyenetra on standby and lead to the creation of Maker’s Asylum immediately after. At the end of 2013, the office roof of the start-up collapses, destroying everything, machines, furniture, equipment. “It was unbelievable! Frankly I still don’t know why it collapsed. People came to help us, they brought tables and tea. That’s how the very first meeting of the future community Maker’s Asylum was improvised. Then we started to meet every Sunday in a small room at the back of the offices to produce furniture, but also to DIY. This is how a small community of makers started to structure itself.”
This same community will be the one to name this makeshift workshop “Asylum”, as a nod to the famous Artisan’s Asylum, the huge American historical makerspace in Somerville, Massachusetts. Rapidly, a member of the very young community makes his garage available, a 250 sq ft space that will become the first official address for Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai.
From then on, events take place one after the other. In June 2015, a successful crowdfunding campaign allows them to move into larger premises, 6,000 sq ft located in the north of the city. Once again, the community gets on with producing furniture, to Vaibhav’s delight who has a passion for carpentry—“It’s what gave me the taste for doing”. His other guilty pleasures? “Photography! In fact, that’s what I began with. In the beginning, I photographed music bands in cellars. A real headache for lighting. I therefore took an interest in optics.” It would even seem he enjoys recreational flying of small aircrafts.
Innovative education and awesome rickshaw
It was also in 2015 that educational and scientific cooperation links were forged between Maker’s Asylum, the CRI and the French Institute around an interdisciplinary EdTech project that will be named (STEAM for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). In November 2016, researchers, engineers, students and French and Indian makers launch a first series of workshops using “challenge education” according to the expression of Sophie Pène, professor at Paris Descartes University who has been taking part in the adventure since the beginning. The objective? Imagine solutions to improve access to water, healthcare and knowledge while contributing to the emergence of a smart city in Mumbai.
Presentation of the 1st edition of the STEAM School:
“The first edition of the STEAM School was just incredible, says Vaibhav with enthusiasm. This year, we are expecting a hundred or so participants.” Programed for December 6-15 as part of Bonjour India (THE big gathering of Franco-Indian cooperation), the STEAM School season 2 should indeed attract a lot of people. Especially as the projects that will come out of it will find very good opportunities in December, still in India, during the Tech 2017, a UNESCO program around digital education for peace and sustainable development.
In order to spread the maker culture in the streets of Mumbai, Vaibhav and his associates set their hearts on its most emblematic symbol: the famous rickshaw. Converted into a micro-makerspace that weaves in and out of back alleys, it is equipped with retractable tables, sixteen tool boxes, a 3D printer (or a small CNC), computers and batteries. Entirely documented on Instructables, the Maker Auto roams the streets to introduce children of the city to creative DIY.
For the years to come, Vaibhav Chhabra is therefore counting on education but also on the development of the community. First step taken with the opening of the new premises of Maker’s Asylum Delhi on August 5, 2017.
“We have two other big projects in the pipeline: Fabrikarium, a hackathon for differently abled people that we will launch with My Human Kit in February 2018 under the auspices of ‘Bonjour India’. And we are setting up a textile lab in Rajasthan that will be focused on women, textiles and handicrafts.”
Website of the two Maker’s Asylum