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‘They can’t bottle this’: Could LVL1′s geek clubhouse turn into Louisville’s high-tech biz incubator?

by Terry Boyd

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On some level, LVL1 is an economic-development/venture capitalist wet dream – PhDs, engineering grads and top technical talent gathering regularly at one place, casually kicking around ideas that could lead to breakthrough innovations.

LVL1 (pronounced “Level One”) is Louisville’s lone open-to-the-public tech cooperative, part of the hacker space phenomenon spreading around the world as micro-technologies get imbedded into everyday mundane life.

The concept could have come straight from some Greater Louisville Inc. five-year plan to keep Louisville from falling farther behind in the tech race: “As part of our visioning project, we anticipate the need for a technical skills focused workshop under our talent attraction sub-committee.”

Which leads more to visioning, but no real traction.

A point not lost on LVL1 co-founder and president Christopher Cprek as LVL1 marked its first anniversary Saturday night.

“They can’t bottle this,” said Cprek, a Nicholas Cage look-alike who works on the University of Louisville’s super computer team.

LVL1 is about smart people attracting more smart people to an open-source, open-door club that offers the tools for experimentation and innovation, club members say.

LVL1 bills itself as a “hacker space,” which conjures visions of schemers trying to hack into bank accounts or national security secrets.

Rather, hacker spaces – already common in Cincinnati and other cities in the region – are workshops where people come to play with next-generation technology such as 3-D printers, which can fabricate component pieces for almost anything.

LVL1 has 35 members who contribute fees, time, talent and tools to the cooperative under the slogan, “Be Excellent to Each Other.” At least as many more people pass through in a typical week.

The result is a daily geek fest, and the ideas percolating through the huge, hangar-like LVL1 space at 814 E. Broadway are excellent, as well.

Members built a cryogenic chamber so colleague Dan Bowen could test the effect of super-cold temperatures on the instruments in a small helium balloon Bowen hopes to insert into the jet stream for the first successful Atlantic crossing.

Conversations revolve around the secrets to building the perfect satellite modem antenna.

Each piece of LVL1 equipment has a QR code that gives access via the swipe of a smart phone to information about who owns the item and how it works.

Oscilloscopes “multiply like rabbits here,” Cprek says, adding how LVL1 is different than most hacker labs in that do-it-yourself hardware geeks are in the majority here, not software engineers and code writers.

That said, LVL1 members put on an Android phone apps writing seminar earlier this year at Louisville Digital Association.

LVL1 was born after three co-founders – Cprek, Brian Wagner and Mark Endicott – came back from the 2009 Maker Fair in San Mateo, Calif., an annual gathering of the creative and technically gifted, a place to share ideas and collaborate on projects.

Their collective conviction was, “We need to do stuff like this in Louisville.”

The focus at LVL1, rather trying to create the next Apple Computers, is fun.

It’s even written into the bylaws: “Fun is the prime directive. Keep things fun.”

“There are a lot of smart people in Louisville,” said LVL1 member and electrical engineer Brad Luyster, noting the number of applied sciences companies that have already sprung up in Louisville.

One of those is iKeyless, which makes universal automotive keyless entry devices, where Bowen works as director of research and development.

But so far, Luyster said, LVL1 is not so much a high-tech business incubator as it is sort of a high-tech artist collective.

“What we want is for more cool people to hang out here and do cool stuff,” he said.

“Edu-tainment,” is how Cprek describes what goes on at LVL1.

“The people we attract want to learn stuff,” said Endicott, who’s a physicist.

A lot of engineers and scientists who excelled in the late night labs of their senior design projects come to LVL1 to relive those glory days “because believe it or not, that’s fun!” said Wagner, who teachers at Kentucky Country Day School, as does Endicott.

At the one-year mark, LVL1’s untapped potential is almost palpable.

Cprek says GLI officials have reached out to LVL1, but there’s no formal relationship. LVL1 members are working with the Louisville Free Public Library to develop “build your own computer” workshops for teens.

What LVL1 will evolve into remains to be seen. Cprek is non-committal on whether members are willing to take on the administrative burden of seeking grants and developing programs to turn the group into a sponsored, funded, formal community asset.

The consensus seems to be that LVL1 was borne spontaneously from the founders’ desire for collaborative scientific investigation. Consciously coaxing the group toward a more ambitious role wouldn’t work.

And it would violate a bylaw from the LVL1 culture sheet:

“Don’t try to solve problems we don’t have.”

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