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  6.  | Fabulous Fabrication: CITC’s Super Fab Lab

Fabulous Fabrication: CITC’s Super Fab Lab

by | Aug 23, 2023 | Alaska Native, Education, Featured, News, Nonprofits

A fab lab staffer scans a model kayak.

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Where bodies were sculpted and sandwiches crafted, a new space is outfitted with modern tools to sculpt plastic and craft wooden artifacts. Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) took over the former Body Renew gym and Burger Fi restaurant in Anchorage’s Muldoon neighborhood and relocated its flagship fabrication laboratory there, expanding the workshop into the Super Fab Lab.

Wood Shop on Steroids

The Krispy Kreme franchise is still in the building near Muldoon Road and Debarr Road, but the adjacent two-story space is now a magnet for makers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. The facility is formally named the Denełchin Lab, from the Dena’ina word meaning “to make something.”

CITC started its first Fab Lab in 2014, partnered with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “A wood shop on steroids” is how CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neill describes the array of 3D printers, laser cutters, and computer-driven routers. The new facility adds a media studio furnished with video cameras and a green screen. “It was probably the greatest investment that we could make in our young people,” she adds.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust awarded $1 million to help CITC expand into the Super Fab Lab. Other funders include the Rasmuson Foundation, First National Bank Alaska, Northrim Bank, Wells Fargo, ConocoPhillips Alaska, the Hearst Foundations, and the Enterprise Holdings Foundation.

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Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) has directed nearly $7 million into CITC’s Fab Lab program. CEO Sophie Minich says her favorite part of the Denełchin Lab is the CIRI Laser Lounge on the main floor. “The CIRI Laser Lounge is a multifunctional space used for activities ranging from rapid prototyping and digital design to laser cutting, that allows for larger projects and improved workflow,” Minich says.

To install the Boss Laser Cutter, a piece of equipment nearly the size of a Mini Cooper, windows had to be removed because the machine is too wide for the building’s doors.

Dream Together

Printers Peak, a workshop sponsored by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, is equipped with a resin printer, filament printers, a vacuum former, and a direct-to-garment printer.

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CITC Board Chair Ivan Encelewski says the expansion plan began in 2019 by looking ahead to 2040. “Dreamed, we did. We envisioned our role, which was to put the tools, resources, programs, and systems in place so that our people could thrive—not just sustain,” Encelewski says.

O’Neill says the Denełchin Lab enables the community to “dream together.” At the grand opening ceremony, she remarked, “We are creating a resource for our students and those entrepreneurs in the community who want to lean in, who want to dream, who want to find themselves.”

An example is Terrence Long, who works as a Fab Lab Assistant. When he first came to CITC as a middle-schooler, his family from Point Hope was homeless, living out of a truck. Long says a CITC afterschool program helped him celebrate his Iñupiaq heritage. He progressed from student, to intern, and now to staff member.

“I want to create a continuous safe space for indigenous youth who have gone through the same stuff I’ve been through and just need somewhere to be where they can truly see who they are,” Long says. What he found about himself, Long adds, is a love of music and teaching.

“The work being done at this lab is going to change lives. It’s going to be a place for our youth to dream, to discover not only what they want to be but who they can become,” says Encelewski.

Community Opportunity

At the grand opening of the Denełchin Lab, staffer Emilka Clark displays dance fans fabricated with a laser cutter.

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Programs at Denełchin Lab include open-access classes for artists, entrepreneurs, and anyone in the community interested in learning how to use the equipment. The lab is also the home base for Indigenous Peoples Setup Shop, a business training program administered by CITC and the Anchorage Community Land Trust.

CITC also shares a curriculum with other fab labs statewide. “We’re in twenty-plus communities, and that is growing. We have a vision of a hub-and-spoke model,” O’Neill says.

Projects completed by CITC’s Fab Lab cohorts range from kuspuks and dance fans augmented with portable LED bulbs to a “widget” that BP engineers devised to improve a process on the North Slope.

In another case, O’Neill recalls, “A young woman, she was being treated for cancer, so she had a [vein access] port, and the port was really uncomfortable. So she came into the Fab Lab and created her own port. Now she’s working with a patent lawyer.”

One more work being made at—and for—the Denełchin Lab is a decorative mask in honor of Amy Fredeen, who was CITC’s chief financial officer when she died in a car crash last summer. In her name, a fellowship has been endowed to select an up-and-coming entrepreneur for intensive mentorship.

The tools inside the Super Fab Lab are force multipliers, amplifying the talent and motivation of the community under CITC’s aegis. “It takes a community to make opportunity,” O’Neill says.

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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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