What began as a group of guys getting together to talk tech in Spencer has turned into a popular, community-focused event that many other smaller towns would love to replicate.
The idea to formalize the group, and name it TechKnow, actually happened in 24 hours. TechKnow has a maker space located at 1103 38th Ave. West where meetups are held the first Tuesday of the month. Their space has computer work stations, 3D printers and other tech tools and toys.
TechKnow held its first meetup in February 2015. It’s grown rapidly ever since.
“We weren’t sure how many people were going to come every month, but we started getting a group of people who were consistently coming and the regulars who would always show up,” said Tony Virelli, one of TechKnow’s founders. “It just grew and grew.”
Virelli co-founded TechKnow with Matt Bathke, John Hass, Torrey Proctor and Aaron Techen.
The friends had been going to a now-defunct meetup event called TechBrew, which was held at StartupCity Spencer when that space was more active.
“That group kind of disbanded,” John Hass said. “And so, before that disbanded, Tony, Torrey, myself, Matt and Aaron decided we were going to start our own group. Basically, we just decided the night before, went crazy on Facebook and we just had a huge turnout. We’ve kind of gone the first Tuesday of the month since then.”
TechKnow meetups start at 5 p.m. That’s when everyone can chat about what types of tech they’ve recently been diving into. Then there’s a 15- to 30-minute presentation about a specific technology.
TechKnow makes a splash with cryptocurrency
In February, Hass presented about mining cryptocurrency. That’s a tech field the guys know well. In January 2016, a few of the TechKnow founders built and installed what, at the time, was probably one of the first bitcoin ATMs in the state of Iowa.
The feat opened eyes, even those far beyond Spencer.Virelli said they got daily email inquiries about how they built the machine, whether they’d build another and sell it and even if they’d mass produce 100s.
That was never the point, though.
“It wasn’t meant to be: ‘Here’s the ATM in Iowa’,” Virelli said. “It was: ‘Can we build a cryptocurrency ATM?’”
Turned out they could.
“It was cheap,” Virelli said. “It wasn’t expensive. I think the most expensive stuff was the wood Aaron had to buy to put the chasis together. Everything else on that wasn’t that expensive.”
A group of 18 attended Hass’s presentation in February. He showed the rig he built himself for mining cryptocurrency.
Without getting too technical, that means Hass’s machine verifies transactions that fit into the ledger of what’s called a blockchain. For this, Hass and other miners earn their own cryptocurrency.
Hass said the turnout that night in February was “light.”
“Usually there’s no seats left.,” Hass said. “I’m thinking it’s probably because of the topic. Last month, we did one on video editing. That’ll pack the house.”
Meetup presentation topics have included photo editing, video production, 3D printing, cloud storage, drone racing and even beekeeping.
“I always say, yes, we’re a tech meetup, but we’re all pretty lenient with the term technology,” Virelli said.
Hass added that different topics can bring new people to meetups. Those people often share what TechKnow’s doing with others.
“It’s growing,” he said. “The more people that hear about us, the larger and more diverse (the group becomes).”
From the Spencer community to beyond
TechKnow has received regional recognition for teaching others about tech. In October 2016, the organization won the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation’s Gold Star award for its efforts to educate the community.
People living outside the area have started to ask the TechKnow founders how to go about forming similar groups in their communities.
“After our first or second year, we started getting a lot of phone calls and people stopping in during our meetups,” Virelli said.
They also drew interest from area school districts, including Newell-Fonda, Clay Central-Everly and Okoboji.
Virelli said many small area school districts have shown interest because they may not have the resources to invest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher.
One of TechKnow’s founders, Torrey Proctor, is the STEM instructor for the Spencer Community School District.
During the summer, TechKnow offers classes and youth programs.
“They come in and they’ll play Minecraft and Mr. Proctor from the school comes out and works with us and he’ll lead building classes,” Hass said. “Last summer, they did match stick rockets, things like that.”
Giving kids in the community something to do was another reason TechKnow started.
“One thing that a lot of us say is four out of the five founders all have kids,” Virelli said. “We all grew up in small towns and there was nothing like this. We kind of liked the idea of having something for our kids to do, which we realized that could be for all the kids in the area.”
Though the meetups first attracted adult attendees, eventually kids were brought into the mix, hence the classes, Virelli said.
“It started out mostly as us wanting to get together and talk to other people our age about tech,” he said. “And then slowly, people started bringing their kids to our TechKnow Tuesdays (meetups). Then they asked if there’d be anything more kid-centric, do we offer classes. It kind of grew from there.”
Get to know TechKnow
Virelli wants the Spencer community to know TechKnow isn’t just for people who are well-versed in tech. As the group’s slogan states: “Learn. Teach. Grow.”
“We don’t care who you are, whether you know tech, love tech, don’t know how to turn a computer on,” he said. “We don’t care. Come out and learn. The goal is that you’ll learn, start something – tinkering or a hobby – and then maybe you’ll get into something one of us maybe have no knowledge of.
“Then that goes from ‘Learn’ to ‘Teach’,” Virelli said. “Come present. Teach us. And then the corny slogan – ‘Let’s grow together in this,’ right?”