Story

I Didn’t Make It To Bucharest

In those few hours I had in my ‘layover’ in Sofia, I wanted to connect with whatever bit of Maker culture there was. In my first outing, I found myself in an apartment where twenty young people had taken over and were teaching themselves MySQL.

One thing leads to another. By stumbling across this community tech teach-in, I got an introduction by text to a guy named Rado, a hardware engineer who supposedly had a maker space set up in his basement. I wasn’t sure how we would find each other, but apparently, I stood out like a sore thumb because he found me rather easily, in the middle of the street a few blocks away. We checked out the maker space in his basement; at the time they were building a 3D printer from spare parts.

Rado introduced me to betahaus, a co-working space where I would meet Alex and a bunch of entrepreneurs. He then took me to Transformatori, where I met Dimitar and found a brand new large-format laser cutter! I was in heaven.

But we weren’t done–at an informal ‘think and drink’ session at Transformatori, I explained that I was trying to solve a particular optimization problem to be able to construct durable physical stencils. A round-table ensued, and one of the local math contest winners pronounced that this was a ‘computer vision problem’, and that I should talk to a friend of his who did his Ph.D. in computer vision. Contact information safely stowed away, we continued the discussion in the basement of the smokiest bar I’ve seen in twenty years.

It wasn’t until later I learned from Rado that he had printing experience as a result of helping his father in a printing business. (“Have you ever made a million of something? In my father’s printing business I learned what it’s like to make a million of something.” Wow, I thought–do I know anybody who learned something like that from a family business?) I showed him my punch out paper models, and he was jazzed because he knew just the people who could make the dies for it.

[I know what you’re thinking: a naive American shows up in an economically depressed corner of the former Soviet Union and just happens to find the exact technical solution to his problem while in the care of a new friend. This wasn’t lost on me. I expected to be disappointed–or worse.]

But so it happens I had done the research back in the Bay Area, and I knew what it cost to produce a die for my punch out models, and I knew what it would take to coordinate the production of those models with such a complex die in San Francisco. I had turned away from those production methods precisely because those large printing houses that could technically meet the spec would not stop to work on a small run with a first-timer like me.

So I decided to meet these friends of his…