Great Innovation Lives in Historic Building – Focus Innovation Studio
[October 30, 2018] BY Wilmer Balmocena
After camera store and a staple San Francisco institution Adolph Gasser Photography closed its doors after 41 years of operation at its location and 67 years in the business, SF locals and city officials wondered what would become of the space. The building is a part of the Gasser Family Trust and after the city of San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce recognized the building as a landmark photography store, Innovation Properties Group, Inc. (commercial real estate company) approached the Trust with a project that has not only tapped into a unique market within the co-workspace industry in San Francisco but also honors the Adolph Gasser Photography spirit of inspiring innovation.
A Brief History
One cannot talk about this project without discussing the history of the building and Mr. Adolph Gasser himself. Adolph Gasser was a world-class innovator and renowned photographer.
One of the most paramount inventions of Gasser was the development of a photographic technology that was used in B-29 Bombers during World War II; this camera was able to capture clear images in extremely cold elevations and, in turn, provide the Air Force with accurate mapping intel for strategic air strikes.
This invention, along with the design of The Big Eye sports camera and other revelations in photography, were all established in the building that Gasser worked out of and ran a camera retail store. The storefront was a staple among SF’s art and photography community and has seen the likes of famed photographers, including fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz and renowned American landscape photographer Ansel Adams, as regulars to the shop and friends with Gasser.
FOCUS is Born
As a building rich in history and an SF landmark, Innovation Properties Group, Inc. executed a unique project that now resides in the building today – Focus Innovation Studio.
A passion project lead by Warner Bonner (Managing Partner at IPG) and the Gasser Family Trust, Focus Innovation Studio, on the surface, is a co-workspace, but as Warner will tell you, it’s fundamentally more than that. Unlike other co-workspace options in SF that caters to entrepreneurs mostly in tech (i.e. WeWork, Covo, Canopy), this space located at 181 2nd Street is a place for artists, designers, founders, and technologists to work and collaborate with one another in a co-workspace that, from the very beginning, encourages innovation.
Focus prides itself in having diverse tenants of entrepreneurs in varying industries that inspire one another in a space that’s comfortable and nurtures creativity.
The heart and passion Warner speaks of are tangible throughout the building. Focus Innovation Studio’s operations in a historic landmark building have encouraged a unique atmosphere for innovation that’s different from the competitive co-workspace industry typical in San Francisco.
A Space for Great Innovation
Inspired by the innovative spirit of Gasser, Warner and Jayaranjan “J” Anthonypillai (Operator of Focus Scientific Facilities; located in FOCUS’ lower level) had to create a strategy to work-around the restriction of not being permitted to implement a build out or remodel inside the building’s interior, but still operate a co-workspace that will attract tenants.
Unlike competitors that attract their tenants with bells and whistles of new appliances within remodeled, ultra-modern minimal spaces, FOCUS’ strategy was to create a community of like-minded creatives and entrepreneurs within a space that’s comfortable and a place where its tenants are not afraid to make mistakes.
“New buildings are good for old ideas, but old buildings are great for new ideas,” J states. They believe since the space has already been built in and worked out of, it’s perceived to be less scary to make mistakes within its walls.
Old and New
Aside from protecting the building’s historic facade, the Gasser Family Trust also requires FOCUS to maintain the purpose of building as it was originally intended: retail on the ground level, office space on the second and third-floor level, and “laboratory” on the lower level.
The space’s ground floor is open to the public as the Camera Store was, where FOCUS has partnered with SF designer WILL WICK to display a showroom of antique and highly curated furniture from Amsterdam.
The furniture can be used by the FOCUS tenants and also be purchased by customers. The interior of FOCUS is a mix of new and old, giving it an eclectic San Francisco vibe. Most of the original features (e.g. wall moldings, doors their hardware) throughout the space was kept in the design to honor the building’s history.
Floor-Levels Of Innovation
Also on the retail floor, an area is reserved for the Focus Retail Collective. The area contains 12 original camera store display cases available for technologist or start-up retailers to showcase their products and prototypes to consumers (an elevated concept of the retail store b8ta). The Collective encourages the community aspect of FOCUS’ project within and among its tenants.
Companies a part of this collective include BloomLife whose product is a medical device for monitoring the health of expecting mothers and babies during their 3rd trimester. Also, a part of the collective is Curate Art Group, a women-owned art curator and vendor that not only operates in FOCUS, but also contributes to its artsy aesthetic as they have curated the building with artwork of featured artists.
They even brought in SF local artist, Eric Randall Morris, to install his first large-scale mural on the building’s roof deck gaining reactions that have led to a pending project with the W Hotel Atlanta. Currently in the space, the work by famed photographers such as Christian Lamb, one of the top music and fashion photographers and videographers in the world who has featured artists such as Beyonce, Childish Gambino, Rihanna, and more, is hanging on the walls.
FOCUS upholds the innovation spirit with their second and third-floor workspace designed for flexible and affordable lease rates. They host companies for as long as they need and provide options for private offices, dedicated desks, and hot desks; the building is also able to hold lectures, events, and large meetings.
FOCUS’ flexible policy is notably different from other co-workspace options in SF as most competitors require a long lease agreement. They believe their affordable product sets FOCUS apart from its competitors and remain protective of this aspect of their business plan. They believe this allows its companies to focus on their main ventures and not have to hassle them with finding affordable real estate to work out of.
When asked how their affordable rates encourage innovation among its tenants, Warner claims “It allows us to lure the companies we want, not just who can afford our product. Therefore we have great demand and can be more selective to tenants who are truly doing cool stuff.”
Aside from the soul of the 67-year-old Gasser story in place, the layout of the space also provides other unique work areas that FOCUS tenants can work out of.
Small sound-editing rooms were converted into small conference rooms where tenants can have meetings and collaborate.
Their roof is equipped with rowing machines and exercise bikes that all tenants have access to; though the building is too historic for LEED Certification, FOCUS plans to obtain a WELL Certification, a standard for building environments that positively impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.
FOCUS purposely designed and converted spaces within the building to give homage to its history, while creating modern ways to utilize the building in today’s workspace.
The energy around the project is all positive and exciting. The non-traditional concept that FOCUS offers is appealing to companies. Warner describes the environment to be like working among friends in the sense that it’s very supportive and relaxed. “Everyone feels it in the building. This is not the ‘nicest’ or most expensive workspace in the city but it is without a doubt the most genuine and soulful space because of the building’s history.” Co-owner of woman-owned Curate Art Group, Rachel Mychajluk, describes FOCUS like home and opposite of stuffy: “Everyone is friends and like hanging out with one another. People are motivated but chilled out. We get a lot of coaching and help from one another. We have people here who make $800/hr as an engineer and we can just ask them the most random questions and they’re willing to help.”
Co-work Research Space within a Co-Workspace
In the lower level which Gasser used as his film chemistry and film hardware laboratory, FOCUS has reactivated it as a space for technologists and researchers to utilize the space, known as Focus Scientific Facilities. Tech and research facilities are not usually found under the same roof (let alone the same co-workspace) due to different space layout and equipment requirements, but FOCUS has found a way to make this possible.
J leads this initiative, which essentially is a co-workspace of technologists and researchers nested within the co-workspace of FOCUS. Currently occupied by thirteen companies, these like-minded individuals can collaborate and provide support to one another.
When asked how Focus Scientific Facilities operates, he states “We lower the barrier of entry to these companies that would otherwise spend the majority of their funding on build-out, equipment, and leases. Here they are able to hit the ground running right off the bat and access a broader community of entrepreneurs and innovators as well as funders.”
The space encourages personal interactions among technologists and allows research to be “approachable” by FOCUS tenants, which was an objective for J.
Creative Approach to Cost
To be consistent with FOCUS’ upper levels’ affordable lease rates, J had to establish creative ways to ensure the lease rates within the lower level space remained flexible and affordable. To do this, he has sourced out used equipment and tools that have been properly maintained and reliably functioning.
The companies within the space can also share supplies they use within their research and experiment, a communal supply of sort. A community approach is required with a lot of sharing and looking after each other’s interests, which helps all companies minimize equipment and labor costs. The space utilizes old benches and counters that were used by Gasser Photography and the building’s unique features on the lower level such as dark rooms that were built out underneath the sidewalk in front of the building, are also being incorporated into the research space.
A Sense of Community
Though the diverse list of companies that operate within FOCUS are essentially broken up by the floors they reside in (retail on the ground floor, office spaces in the upper level, and technologist and researchers on the bottom level), the sense of community and the building’s location is something that’s valued among all tenants.
When speaking to Stephan Lam, Co-founder and COO of ZBiotics (research company that creates probiotics) located on the research level, he reiterates what other tenants have mentioned: “It doesn’t feel like a separate co-workspace. Though it [research level] has its own operations and requirements, I interact with them [tenants in the levels above] more than sometimes those in the lab.”
As his company researches probiotics and the first company to sign on to the lower level space, Mr. Lam notes that FOCUS is very unique space to be operating from. He mentions, “There are certain challenges, but the fact that we can be in a fully equipped space in the middle of the city is incredible. There are few spaces like this that exist in the city.”
The spirit of innovation is strong at Focus Innovation Studio. The building’s history and landmark standing has, not forced, but motivated Warner to create a space that unlike any other co-workspace in San Francisco.
What they’ve created at FOCUS is a community of innovators and they’ve done this by utilizing the already inspiring building and honoring its history by keeping its intended purpose while elevating it by attracting today’s co-workspace market. Upon walking around FOCUS, one doesn’t notice a former Google executive chatting with a first-time entrepreneur art curator; what you see is two individuals collaborating and helping one another as if they’ve been longtime friends.
FOCUS’ appeal is its affordable lease rates, central location, and extremely unique workspaces, but what makes this project unique and sets it apart from others is the community – a community of artists, designers, founders, technologists, and any other creatives. This, I believe, would get a nod from Mr. Adolph Gasser himself as this, arguably, is the essence of innovative spirit.
Writer of this post
Wilmer BalmocenaWilmer has been a resident in the San Francisco Bay Area for over fifteen years and has an extensive background in Business Operations and Office Management that gives him a fresh perspective on various topics. As the Operations Manager at btrax, an experience design agency in San Francisco, he is passionate about understanding what motivates businesses and individuals to succeed and excel.
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