It might seem like the ultimate odd couple: a funky, co-working space known for juxtaposing fine art with outside-the-box makeshift furnishings partnering with a bureaucratic agency best known for economic studies.

But if it works out as planned, Honolulu’s new Entrepreneurs Sandbox in Kakaako could show the power of collaborations between the creative class and wonky business types.

Box Jelly, a pioneering co-work space on Kamani Street in Kakaako near Ward, is helping manage a new, strikingly modern building developed by the Hawaii Technology Development Corp., the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s entity in charge of growing the technology sector.

Entrepeneurs Sandbox building inside.
The Hawaii Technology Development Corp.’s Entrepreneurs Sandbox includes a vast area to be used as a co-work space. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For years the HTDC has struggled to fulfill that seemingly quixotic mission: to develop higher-paying technology jobs in an island economy dominated by tourism and the military.

HTDC has set out to create 80,000 new technology and innovation jobs earning more than $80,000 annually by 2030. Such jobs are essential in a state where nearly half of the households earn less than the $72,000 a family of four needs to eke out a decent life.

But can one building, no matter how cool, really make much difference?

“It’s not all the answer,” says Len Higashi, HTDC’s acting executive director, “but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle.”

It’s also different from anything the HTDC has done before. To be sure, the $7.5 million, 13,500-square foot facility isn’t the state’s first incubator meant to help foster technology startups. For instance, HTDC also runs the Maui Research & Technology Center in South Kihei, which offers low cost office space for startup technology companies and co-working space for entrepreneurs.

But partnering with an organization like Box Jelly allows HTDC to tap into a network of young innovators that could bring energy to the space and share ideas, perhaps creating a movement around economic development.

Entrepeneurs Sandbox building in Kakaako2.
State economic development officials hope the Entrepreneurs Sandbox in Kakaako will promote innovation. 

A case in point is Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast series for creative entrepreneurs that started in New York before expanding to dozens of cities across the globe.

Box Jelly hosted Honolulu’s First Creative Mornings event at its space on Kamani Street last month.  But it plans to hold its next one at the Sandbox.

Noah Gordines, who co-founded Honolulu’s Creative Mornings chapter with his colleague Lauryn Chin, expects 100 attendees at the next event featuring the designer Michelle Jaime of The Vanguard Theory, which designed the hip Surfjack boutique hotel in Waikiki.

The Sandbox’s soaring ceiling, 28-by-24 foot projection screen, exposed ductwork and industrial light fixtures give it a high-tech feel. Gordine hopes his event will bring people and ideas to the space.

“I have a good feeling about this building,” said Gordines, who works as business development director for Ellemsee Media in Honolulu.

Located next to the John A. Burns School of Medicine, the Sandbox was paid for with $3 million from both state and federal taxpayers and about $1.5 million from the developer Stanford Carr.

Co-work and office spaces managed by Box Jelly will complement a digital production studio managed by DBEDT’s Creative Industries Division, which includes a maker space and additional offices and conferences rooms.

Memberships to use Box Jelly’s co-work space will start at $85 per month said Dan Pham, Box Jelly’s director of operations. It’s considerably lower than the $225 rate at Box Jelly’s Kamani Street location. Pham thinks it will make the space accessible to a broader customer base.

“I think $225 for a lot of people just prices them out,” he said.

Collaborations come with challenges. Known for a space that turns found objects and salvaged material into cool design elements, Box Jelly now has to work within a stultifying government procurement process that’s a polar contrast to Box Jelly’s atmosphere of creative whimsy.

Plus, a good partner is hard to find.

HTDC is looking for someone to help run the maker space, for instance. That means helping to outfit the facility with gear like 3D printers. Likewise, the Creative Industries Division is still looking for a partner for the digital media studio, said Georja Skinner, the division’s director.

For now, the studio consists of a space with no equipment while the division solicits proposals from potential partners. Eventually the idea is to have a space creatives can use for all sorts of audio and video projects.

“The goal is to be able to provide this turnkey space for producers,” she said.

She also said she’s confident more partners with track records like Box Jelly will step up. There was a time, Skinner admits, when it was novel for governments to promote creative endeavors to stimulate the economy. And she shrugs off the idea that it’s odd to have DBEDT and Box Jelly partnering together on the Sandbox.

“Remember,” she said, “the people who visioned it are from state government.”

“Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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