By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Dream it, learn it, make it.
That’s the motto at Hawaii TechWorks, a fledgling nonprofit that’s taking wing on Kekuanaoa Street.
The former home of Miko Meats is undergoing transformation to a new business incubator, creating jobs and building community in East Hawaii.
The project is part of East Hawaii Development Corp., founded by 27-year-old Tony Marzi, who on Feb. 14 was escorting U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono around the 18,000-square-foot facility that opened in January but is still being developed.
Federal grants funneled through the University of Hawaii have provided start up funds for the facility’s Design Lab, which is up and running with sophisticated computers and design programs. Marzi said the lab is part computing center and part community workshop, where members explore ideas, innovate and design prototypes, and work together to create sustainable local businesses.
Kent Olsen was the first member to join in January. The virtual design programmer pays $60 a month to use the expensive, high-tech equipment that ordinarily would be unavailable to him.
“It’s like a gym membership,” he said, though potentially more rewarding. “I jumped on it.”
He uses the equipment for his own projects and soon will be training others how to use it as well. That member-to-member mentoring concept is a key part of the TechWorks concept.
Marzi, a University of Hawaii at Hilo grad, has five years of experience in leadership positions on technical projects, business marketing and planning initiatives in Saipan, the Northern Mariana Islands, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and at the Naval Research Laboratory (DOD), in Washington, D.C. He’s also been active in local and statewide Democratic Party politics since 2008 and ran for office in Puna in both 2008 and 2010.
Chairman of the nonprofit board is Ernest Matsumura, who has more than 40 years experience managing a business and working with local government agencies and numerous community organizations in business development. Matsumura owned Miko Meats, but retired from the business in 1992. Subsequent lessees of the building couldn’t make it work, however, and Matsumura later reacquired the building.
Now he wants to renovate it all for TechWorks.
“I didn’t want to sell (the building) as a warehouse because that’s not going to help the community,” he said. With three grown children, all of whom moved away from Hawaii Island to find jobs, Matsumura saw the need to upgrade the island’s level of skills and opportunities. “The younger generation is not going to do the old technology,” he said.
Matsumura and Marzi met by chance while both worked at the Livermore Lab in California. They developed the Hawaii TechWorks concept together and both put personal money into the nonprofit venture.
The duo were a good fit, Matsumura said. “The old man and the new man,” he said, laughing. “We realized the ag business needed to be more modern,” and Matsumura would like to see the tech side of the operation develop robotic technology to reduce the physical burdens of farming.
Matsumura also foresees a growing need for farmers’ education in new, stricter food safety requirements for meat as a consequence of the federal Food Safety Act of 2011. The new nonprofit will provide that and a processing facility at another location. “If we don’t have a processing plant, all the small farmers will close up,” he said. “Why don’t we get prepared?”
Hawaii TechWorks’ Design Lab will also host and conduct a variety of classes and seminars, which are being developed.
“We need young guys to be entrepreneurs,” Matsumura said. “Hopefully we will have that opportunity here.”
The Design Lab’s computers were provided through an $18,000 federal grant from the University of Hawaii, said Don Straney, chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“This is where ideas begin,” Marzi said.
“This is a plus for the community,” said Noreen Yamane, chancellor of Hawaii Community College, “and for the public to explore new ideas and ways to be successful in business. It only requires an innovative, unique idea to make things happen. We never had anything like this before.”
Marzi said the model for Hawaii TechWorks is to be a sustainable nonprofit operation supported by member fees, and he sees community investment and development in the facility coming as the result of “aligning East Hawaii’s rich cultural heritage with the latest tools and means of innovation.”
A large part of the facility is being renovated as a fully certified kitchen, where the goal is to bring in small farmers — those with five to 10 acre farms — to add value to their ag products through processing.
“The intent is to come up to selling at an international level,” Matsuura said.
Hirono praised the combination of private capital, community, university and government support in the development of Hawaii TechWorks. A $15,000 laser printer, woodworking shop, design lab, and the developing “food hub” were all stops on her tour.
“There’s really good synergy here,” Hirono said. “This is a good collaboration.
“Tony came back to do something for the community and he should be heralded for it,” she said. “I’m glad to see the federal dollars being put to good use.”
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.