A decade of innovation and inspiration at the CITRIS Invention Lab
The carefully cultivated community of makers has helped thousands of UC Berkeley students and researchers develop creative skills and prototype novel products.
This summer, the first dedicated, open-access tech maker space in the University of California system is recognizing a decade of design innovation. Located on the first floor of Sutardja Dai Hall at UC Berkeley, the Invention Lab at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS) has hosted novel prototyping courses, sparked innovative products and fostered a vibrant maker community for students, faculty and staff across the campus over the course of its 10 years.
Equipped for innovation
The CITRIS Invention Lab is currently one of several UC Berkeley maker spaces where students and researchers can design and prototype interactive technologies. In the Invention Lab, these creations can be as simple as articulated plastic figurines and as complex as hydration-tracking smart cups.
Equipment available in the 1,700-square-foot space includes everything from basic crafting tools to advanced digital fabrication equipment such as vinyl cutters, laser cutters, multiple types of 3D printers, vacuum-forming tools, circuit board mills, a suite of computer-aided design (CAD) workstations and much more.
The Invention Lab is open to all current UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff of any department or discipline with a Maker Pass. The pass also grants access to the maker space at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation in nearby Jacobs Hall.
Directly inspired by the Invention Lab, Jacobs Hall opened in 2015 as a three-story campus “hub for all things design.” At 24,000 square feet, Jacobs Hall has allowed the campus to expand its prototyping facilities.
“We need spaces like the Invention Lab and Jacobs Hall to support learning, experimentation and research,” said Eric Paulos, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) and faculty director of the Invention Lab. “The Invention Lab is an open, supportive and creative community. It’s a very special, magical place.
“There is both a cultural synergy between Jacobs and the Invention Lab as well as a healthy contrast to the intimacy of each space.”
A community-driven vision
According to its users, what sets the Invention Lab apart from other maker spaces is its strong sense of community, carefully cultivated by its leadership, close-knit staff and a team of student leaders called “superusers,” who foster the lab’s culture by sharing their skills and knowledge.
This vision of a community-driven lab was championed by Paul Wright, CITRIS’s director from 2007–14. Wright wanted an accessible, hands-on facility where students and researchers could be inspired to develop their own designs — to connect their deep, fundamental research to society.
He partnered with Eric Paulos and Bjoern Hartmann, another EECS faculty member, to turn the vision into reality. Paulos had launched several open-use digital fabrication labs, and both professors had extensive research experience in interactive device design and engineering.
“I was teaching classes in digital programming, using early 3D printing technologies,” said Paulos. “I knew that if we could create a space that could help people’s research and education, we could democratize access to these technologies.”
Through grant funding and startup support, CITRIS established the Invention Lab in summer 2012, with co-founders Hartmann and Paulos named co-directors shortly thereafter. (Hartmann moved on in 2015 to direct the new Jacobs Institute.)
The pair quickly brought in skilled practitioners to help manage the lab, mindful to balance engineering expertise with creative perspectives. Both of the Invention Lab’s first two staff members, Mark Oehlberg and Chris Myers, played critical roles in the lab’s early success.
Though Oehlberg has since departed, senior lab manager and “head inventioneer” Chris Myers continues to share his extensive background in product and industrial design, with projects in his portfolio ranging from concept automobiles to medical devices to award-winning edu-tech toys. He extends his considerable prototyping expertise and creative enthusiasm to everyone who walks into the Invention Lab.
Design specialist and senior artist Dan Chapman, a former freelance designer and comic book illustrator, soon came over from Wright’s mechanical engineering research laboratory, where he’d been running rapid prototyping since 1999, to help support the Invention Lab.
A decade later, Chapman serves as one of the lab’s managers and design technicians. He also curates the CITRIS Tech Museum on the third floor of Sutardja Dai Hall. The space uses hands-on displays and interactive demos to highlight research from CITRIS’s multicampus community, featuring several prototypes developed downstairs in the Invention Lab.
Under Chapman and Myers’ guidance, the Invention Lab not only teaches the UC Berkeley community how to operate complex machinery; it also works to change the way its users approach and solve complex problems.
“Students have been trained in K-12 to find the right answer,” Myers said. “But there’s not always one right answer. Find an answer that satisfies the needs you’re looking for. Don’t design for X, design for ‘why.’”
From headphones to health care, a history of student success
When the CITRIS Invention Lab launched in 2012, it filled an urgent need for technical and interactive electronic design prototyping on campus. Its inclusive environment soon attracted practitioners across many disciplines.
And within a few years of its launch, the lab saw a major milestone in its mission to help UC Berkeley researchers turn nascent ideas into commercial products.
By Chris Myers’ recollection, it was in May 2014 that recent alumnae Victoria Hu, an economics and political science major, and Wenqing Yan, an art practice major, walked into the Invention Lab with little more than one of Yan’s “amazing” illustrations — a figure wearing a pair of colorful light-up, cat-ear headphones — and a great deal of enthusiasm.
“They had to learn how to solder. They needed a lot of resources, like premade plug-in electronic modules,” Myers said. “But at the end of the summer, they walked out with a working prototype and into a wildly successful product launch.”
By November, Hu and Yan had raised more than $3 million dollars on Indiegogo in one of the crowdfunding platform’s all-time most successful campaigns. Lifestyle products retailer Brookstone licensed their brand, Axent Wear, and got their headphones on shelves in 2015. A special edition endorsed by pop star Ariana Grande came out the next year.
Several other successful student projects developed in the Invention Lab drew upon UC Berkeley’s notable research strengths in human health and biological sciences.
When Ngoc Mai Nguyen first entered the Invention Lab in 2014, she was a graduate student in neuroendocrinology with minimal engineering experience. She’d been working on an experiment in Jacobs Hall, and someone referred her to the Invention Lab to find a small part she needed. She found herself returning time and time again, and she soon became a superuser.
Now Nguyen is the CEO of OptoCeutics, a company she launched in 2018 to develop novel life-saving digital therapeutics for neurodegenerative and psychological disorders. She said that OptoCeutics would not have been possible without the Invention Lab.
“It taught me to solve without overcomplicating things,” Nguyen said. “It taught me to think outside the box. It taught me to speak to engineers.”
Franchesca Spektor, now a doctoral student in human-computer interactions at Carnegie Mellon University, credits her start in community-based design work to the Invention Lab.
In fall 2019, Spektor and an all-woman team worked in the lab on a quirky project for a studio art class. Nostrum, as they called it, was a white box masquerading as a boutique wellness platform that pretended to read participants’ biometric data and then provide a cure for their ailments: a sugar-pill placebo. Just one semester later, four of the group’s five members were Invention Lab superusers.
Soon thereafter, the team was approached by Laura Millar, a San Francisco-based sexual health educator for people with disabilities, to create tactile materials for blind and visually impaired (BVI) learners. Leveraging the Invention Lab’s resources, an iterative design process and user testing with BVI participants, the team quickly refined a set of models of vulvas and internal reproductive systems for use by health educators.
“What I liked is that we were solving real problems,” Spektor said. “We’d take everyone’s feedback into account. It was really really collaborative.
“I definitely have rose-colored glasses for the Invention Lab,” she said. “It was such a special space, where you could mess up and someone still really cared about your progress.”
A network of UC builders and creators
Since its founding, the Invention Lab at CITRIS’s UC Berkeley headquarters has inspired a range of similar innovation hubs and maker spaces across the CITRIS ecosystem, helping to cultivate a robust UC network of builders and creators.
CITRIS at UC Davis hosts an aviation laboratory with a 140-square-foot hangar for uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), both rotorcraft and fixed-wing. Used by the Davis Drone Club and the UC Davis Drone Academy, the lab features a 3D printer, soldering equipment, and a variety of drone kits and assembly stations.
UC Davis will also open the new Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center in winter 2023, more than tripling the campus’s engineering design space. The facility will house CITRIS-supported prototyping equipment, including computer numerical control (CNC) mills and metrology-grade 3D scanners.
At UC Merced, the School of Engineering’s Mobile Maker Lab, aka Mobi, helps students and faculty members take hands-on science and technology demonstrations to local schools and outreach events. This spring, a CITRIS at UC Merced student team brought drone and robotics demos to hundreds of families at the Tri-Valley Innovation Fair.
The IDEA Hub at UC Santa Cruz unites four independent facilities — the Sustainability Lab (S-Lab), the OpenLab Collaborative Research Center, the Everett Program and Digital Scholarship Commons — that provide students with access to wet labs, wood and metal shops, advanced visualization tools and more. Recipients of CITRIS at UC Santa Cruz Tech for Social Good awards often use these spaces, particularly the S-Lab, to further develop their projects.
Pandemic pivot and building back up
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in spring 2020, the CITRIS Invention Lab closed its doors to comply with campus health and safety mandates. However, the lab then received a rare exemption to the shelter-in-place order to help produce items to support campus and community efforts to combat the virus.
Paulos, Myers, Chapman and former lab manager Kuan-Ju Wu staffed the lab in three-person shifts, fabricating medical-grade nasopharyngeal test swabs and prototypes of ventilator adaptors, as well as a variety of personal protective equipment (PPE). The Invention Lab provided more than 1,000 face shields and over 3,500 face mask strap holders to campus at a fraction of retail cost.
That summer, the Invention Lab also virtually hosted more than 100 middle schoolers from across the Bay Area as part of UC Berkeley’s Girls in Engineering (GiE) program. The students were sent supply kits, designed and fabricated in the Invention Lab, to use during a series of hands-on making activities led by Chris Myers.
Myers says the Invention Lab looks forward to continuing to support GiE and other community educational groups.
The CITRIS Invention Lab finally fully reopened, with great excitement, in fall 2021 — just in time for its 10th anniversary — and the staff has been delighted to see the facility once again buzzing with tools and bustling with bright ideas.
“Our 10-year anniversary is a time to celebrate our past and to plan for the next decade of innovation,” Myers said. “I always love hearing from alumni, and more than anything, they tell me how they wish they had a place like the Invention Lab after they graduated.”
Eric Paulos said it’s not the sophisticated equipment, but the people using it, who make up the heart of the lab. “It’s filled with incredibly creative people. I always say ‘Come for the laser cutter, but stay for the community.’”