Meet The Workbench: A new accelerator helping Fort Wayne startups bring ideas to market

It’s said that small businesses are the engines of job creation in the U.S.

In 2015, they employed 58.9 million peopleor roughly half of the private workforce. But how many enterprises never live to see the light of day because the founders don’t have resources to bring them to market?

These are the kinds of questions that keep Jon Rehwaldt of Fort Wayne up at night.

Rehwaldt is the founder and CEO of The Workbench—Fort Wayne, a new manufacturing accelerator and for-profit membership-based business that launched at the SEED Enterprise Center during Startup Week 2019.

The Workbench helps people with ideas for physical products build prototypes, design production, and identify the next steps to starting a business. Their goal is to lower the barrier to entry for people with good ideas to help them turn those ideas into real products and impact their community.

The membership-based program and space provide access to training, equipment, and expertise to move through the design process and identify strategies for success.

“That's the advantage of an accelerator, as opposed to trying to do it yourself in your garage,” Rehwaldt explains. “You have access to production-level equipment that is outside the budget of most startups. We really want to lower the barrier to entry and get a lot more people to think about starting manufacturing companies.”

The Workbench brings new ideas to life, one startup at a time.

Rehwaldt, who was most recently an educator, says the concept behind The Workbench came out of his own passions and an observation. A self-described “tinkerer,” he’s long enjoyed making things and pondering the mechanics behind items. When Start Fort Wayne’s Dave Sanders asked him to be a founding member of the board of directors and start a youth coding education program, something “clicked.”

“That experience got me into the entrepreneurial space,” he explains. “So I started talking to a lot of entrepreneurs and connecting with companies in the region and people who define strategies for economic development. One of the things that came up again and again is we don't have enough companies starting.” 

The deeper he dove into the issue, he discovered that the problem extends beyond northeast Indiana. But people in other communities have made attempts to foster growth and make what he refers to as “an appreciable difference” on the situation. 

“One of the biggest factors in a lot of communities is significant wealth creation or the exit of a large company,” he says. “That's the case in cities like Grand Rapids, Chattanooga, and Fishers. There are large companies that were acquired and that led to wealth creation, which led to more companies.”

Fort Wayne is lacking in that regard, he says. While we’ve had a few large funding rounds and a few exits, they occurred some time ago.

“And they haven't really had that massive impact that a billion-dollar exit can have on a community,” Rehwaldt explains.

The Workbench makes various tools available to its members.

With this in mind, he did his homework to determine how to overcome the paradigm. Rehwaldt traveled to a few communities, like Chicago and Nashville, to look at what they were doing with their accelerators. He was inspired to bring back some perspective to the Summit City and affect change here. It was just a matter of determining what that would look like.

In 2017, he took a leap of faith and left his position at Snider High School to focus on researching the idea. Eight months later in 2018, he started working on the pilot program.

Since launching, Rehwaldt says The Workbench has already reaped rewards in the form of success stories. One is DeLury Enterprise, which makes a device to streamline medication compliance. 

“We helped her to develop her first proof of concept,” he says. “Now, we're working on a pre-production prototype, and she’s in talks with two medication companies about supporting her product, so that's pretty exciting.”

Another is an eyeglasses assembly, Glasses Gripper. He says they’re hoping to do production of their first run by the end of the year.

Regardless of the nature of the business or product, the ultimate goal is to get startups to that “next level.”

“If we're doing our job, they should be growing out of this space pretty quickly,” Rehwaldt says.

He would like The Workbench to work with 20 companies in its first year, and he's well on his way to hitting that number.

In the meantime, inquiries from potential members are welcome. 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.