New media and interactive artist Balam Soto is the founder and Lead Creative Mind at Open Wire Lab. His interactive technology studio is where he develops technologies that are geared toward the creative and maker industries.
Soto was the recipient of the Business Development Grant for Innovative Entrepreneurs from the City of Hartford in 2012. He was a TED X Talk guest speaker at Hartford’s Bushnell Park in 2013 and the recipient of the Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant in 2014. In 2009, the City of Hartford Mayor presented Soto with an award and an official citation in recognition for his outstanding contribution in art. His exhibits have been featured at museums, libraries, historical societies and maker faires all over the world.
Soto and his wife Shelli McMillen Soto, who acts as Lead Business Mind, created Open Wire Lab to help provide creative and approachable projects that stimulate Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) learning; build curiosity; and encourage a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) attitude and aptitude.
AN INHERENT LOVE OF INNOVATION
Innovation has always fascinated Soto. He grew up in a small village in Guatemala where he says, “I would create art with whatever I could find. My grandfather used to have a carpentry shop, so I started working with his old-school tools. I love learning how to make stuff.”
Soto moved to the United States 20 years ago and began actively creating art installations five years ago. A friend who is a curator at the Queens Museum in New York became intrigued with his work and encouraged him to submit a project to the first New York Maker Faire in 2010. There Soto earned his first Maker Faire Editor’s Choice award.
DEVELOPING A BUSINESS CONCEPT
Soto began attending many maker faires throughout Connecticut, where he realized attendees were very interested in his artwork. “A lot of people were asking me: how do you do this?” Soto recalls. “I thought it was interesting because it was kind of a new market—people were demanding a product and there were no products for that market yet,” he explained.
“I noticed that a lot of art supplies are basically old school and haven’t been upgraded. Artists have to make their own tools using game controllers that they have to crack open and rewire. Most artists don’t want to do that, they just want to have a premade tool they can modify. So I decided to make something like that.”
Soto began teaching himself how to do electronics and started doing his own market research at maker faires. “I found out that people mostly wanted something that was easy for them to put together,” he says. “My original idea was to make a board that had sensors, but back then it was very expensive to make. So I began to develop it on a smaller scale and more geared toward the art market. Then I began to develop new products, which grabbed a lot of attention from different individuals,” he continued.
“I was invited to participate in a lot of festivals, which opened me up to a whole new perspective. I had been just looking at the artist market, but going to events where there were more tech individuals, I realized they also wanted to explore technology in a different format. That’s when I decided to create Open Wire Lab.”
After the company launched, Soto continued using maker faires as a marketing platform to showcase his products.
Soto is working on developing a new project that integrates art and technology. “I see my business sort of as a chess game—how do I move my business into the next thing?” he wonders.
“I’m getting ready to reinvent Open Wire Lab, create a new area of advanced interactive technologies and see how it grows from that. I’m trying to find a partner here in Hartford,” he says.
“If my business can grow the way I want it will be a good example for other companies. People can say: This maker has his business and he grew out of Hartford, so people can see that Hartford has that kind of environment.”
ENCOURAGING MAKERS IN HARTFORD
Soto feels there is a resurgence in Hartford. “The way that I see it, Hartford is remaking itself,” he says. “There’s a movement from makers in this area, so we should try to consider the maker movement part of the innovation process.”
He thinks Hartford is a good place for makers to develop products, launch them and develop them. “That’s how I think innovation is moving now a days,” Soto says, “it’s basically how I saw the opportunity in this market and how I developed Open Wire Lab.”
BUILDING INNOVATION IN HARTFORD
Although he has had the opportunity to move his art business to New York City, Soto wants to stay in Hartford. “I think Hartford has the potential for developing creative industries,” he says, “It would be expensive for me to run my Open Wire Lab business in New York and Hartford makes it a little more accessible—the fact that I know so many people here in Hartford.”
Soto says, “Individuals have very cool ideas in Hartford and somehow they end up contacting me to work with them or to meet and see my experience. They wonder how it is possible that I’m getting awards and recognition and I am out of Hartford.”
To promote innovation in Hartford, Soto says we need to support the innovation we have in Connecticut. “That’s what is going to attract innovators to the area,” he adds. “We need to start from the bottom up—develop the idea of innovation and start working with innovators throughout Connecticut.”
But, he cautions, for Hartford to grow as big as Stamford, “We have to have a different approach. Hartford needs to find its own identity as a city; it has to brand its own way of innovation.” He adds, “But, if you take pre-established ideas—and there are so many that have been established—you are in competition with other cities.
Soto continues, “For Hartford to become the innovation spot, we need to be brave, develop new ideas and see if they work. If they don’t work, we can create new ideas. To develop the innovation, you must be open-minded to these kind of ideas. You have to take a risk,” he emphasizes. “Other cities have success because they took risks. To develop the idea of innovation, I think is a great opportunity for Hartford to really jump in and take it.”
HARTFORD HAS WHAT IT TAKES
Soto says when he asks people if they would be willing to move to Hartford they say yes. “They think of Hartford as a kind of wild place where they can develop their ideas and grow from them,” he says.
“Hartford has the potential, we just have to dig out that gold. If there is a nice plan to build potential Hartford can grow tremendously—it definitely has the potential to grow as a major city,” he adds.
“Innovation can really just make a city grow. The resources have to be well structured so Hartford can grow. Even within five years, if there is a small spark that’s great. If it keeps going it will generate the energy for Hartford to grow exponentially,” Soto speculates.
“I see Hartford has the potential and I trust the potential—that’s why I want to keep Open Wire Lab here in Hartford. It will take a lot of work for the city to grow and innovate. And there are a lot of walls. But I want to conquer those walls. I want to say listen: Hartford has it. Hartford definitely has it. There’s gold in Hartford. Just come and dig it out.”