BetaBox: A Mobile Prototyping Lab in a Shipping Container

A group of young entrepreneurs turn a shipping container into a mobile incubator for innovation.
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The so-called maker movement has the potential to fundamentally change the way things are developed, produced, and fixed in this country, but its shift into the mainstream depends on access to technology and the means of mastering it.

The BetaBox mobile prototyping lab is outfitted with a 3D printer, a CNC mill, a laser cutter, and other tools for innovating.

That can be tricky in today’s climate of slimmed-down higher-education budgets. However, a group of simpatico young entrepreneurs think they have found a solution with BetaBox, an on-demand mobile prototyping lab housed in a repurposed 25-foot shipping container.

Students at work in the BetaBox on the Duke University campus in 2014.

"The whole maker movement and the idea of learning by doing and design-thinking—all of these concepts were spreading through the higher-education ecosystem, and we positioned ourselves in the forefront of that wave," says Blake Marggraff, the chief revenue officer and a founder of Betaversity, the young education technology company that launched the BetaBox in mid-2014.

With white-board walls, the BetaBox is set up to encourage creative thinking.

The BetaBox contains a 3D printer, a CNC mill, a laser cutter, and other tools that the members of Betaversity team believe make the container an incubator for innovation and rapid prototyping. The container also comes with a Betaversity employee who lends a hand and keeps everything running smoothly while largely staying out of the way to let educators use the tools as they see fit.

The look of the BetaBox was a collaboration between Nicholas Sailer, BetaVersity's director of creative, who studied industrial design at the College of Design in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Michael Hobgood, an architectural designer and the company's director of operations.

Much thought was put into the look of the BetaBox. Another Betaversity founder, Sean Newman Maroni, was attending a program for young entrepreneurs where talk turned to shipping containers. Intrigued, "he found a shipping container that otherwise would have been discarded and he just went out and bought it," says Nicholas Sailer, the company’s director of creative.

Sailer, who studied industrial design at the College of Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Michael Hobgood, an architectural designer who serves as Betaversity’s director of operations, collaborated on the clean look of the mobile innovation lab.

"We were both really keen on getting a distinct aesthetic for the BetaBox," Sailer says. "We wanted it to be very inviting, very clean, and very welcoming, and to take any sort of intimidation away, and I think we’ve done that. All of the walls are white boards, and we put a lot of effort into giving it a very distinct, fresh look."

Betaversity has raised $53,000, largely in grants, Marggraff says, and charges $4,000 to $5,000 to rent out the BetaBox for a week. (The price fluctuates depending on how far it needs to be shipped.) If the BetaBox continues to be a hit, more containers could be retrofitted and put into circulation, Marggraff and Sailer say.


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