When Chris Lehenbauer saw his friend’s messy workbench holding a delicate, sprawling electronic ecosystem based on a Raspberry Pi computer base back in 2016, the engineer was hit with a familiar feeling: “I think we can solve this problem.”
Literally and figuratively, Lehenbauer is a veteran manufacturer—his first experience with manufacturing was as a mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. As Lehenbauer wound down on his career near retirement at the NC Department of Labor, he found himself itching to go back to manufacturing.
Creating a better solution for single-board computer project development seemed like a perfect, unique opportunity.
“We found that everybody focuses on electronics,” Lehenbaeur said. “Nobody has focused on how to package it up, and make it easier to use them.”
Chris knew just the right business partner: his wife, Barbara, an experienced marketing leader. The Lehenbauers were off to the races, and Raleigh-based Phase Dock was born.
Their signature product is the “WorkBench,” a mobile project development kit that can fit in the laptop pocket of your backpack. Think of their parts like “tiny building bricks” (you know the ones) that help you build mobile, innovative projects using electronics.
“People look at it,” said Barbara, “and think ‘Oh, Legos for electronics.’ And then it’s like the light bulb goes off, and they get it.”
Computer engineer customers have described the WorkBench as a system they never knew they needed. This can be a blessing and a curse, especially as the team initially looked to publicize their product to potential customers. But as soon as most customers see in-person, kinetic demonstrations, they “get it.”
For the Lehenbauers, business is always “close to home”—the WorkBench itself, and all the parts that can be mounted in it, were designed by Chris in the couple’s basement workshop in Raleigh.
Says Barbara, “Anybody who has done design work knows that there’s many iterations, and if we had to pay someone to run those iterations through their machine, we couldn’t; we’d be out of business. So rather than investing in somebody else’s machinery, we invested in machinery of our own, including a really nice laser. That enabled Chris to do as many iterations as he needed to get a product that performed well, looked really great, and had the ergonomics.”
If the name “Phase Dock” rings some bells, NC IDEA might be to blame—or credit, in this case—as the company recently won a $50K SEED grant from NC IDEA.
“It’s been a challenge for us,” Barbara said. “That’s one reason we went forward with applying to NC IDEA, is that we’d really like to get into the schools where we could, instead of fighting for individual hobbyists or individual engineers.”
While the product was initially geared towards computer engineers and tinkerers, after attending a few Maker Faires early on in Phase Dock’s existence the Lehenbauers quickly learned that their product could serve a growing market for computer products: childhood STEM education.
At the couple’s first Maker Faire, a gaggle of 6- to 8-year-old students visiting their booth made an impact and helped turn their eyes to STEM education
“I built a doorbell,” one of the students, a 6-year old African-American girl, told Chris.
“I’m gonna like this conversation,” Chris remembers thinking.
“They talked to me for like, 10 minutes, and when they finally left, I’m thinking ‘Man, that kid’s gonna make a great engineer,’” Chris said. “Do you know what her odds are? I looked it up. 1.8% as a female minority—it’s not going to happen. So, what are we gonna do? That’s why we’re here.”
Improving equity in STEM education
Phase Dock has focused heavily on getting its technology in schools and summer camps in order to make sure all kids are able to access quality STEM education. In the summer of 2021, the company partnered with Raleigh’s Betabox Learning (which we first profiled in 2018) to deliver two beginner computing courses at Fayetteville State University, an HBCU.
Improving equity in STEM education is a core part of Phase Dock’s mission. That’s why the company’s $50K SEED grant is going to develop class curriculums that can be sold alongside the WorkBench to schools and STEM education partners.
“We love working with Betabox, because that’s exactly who they’re trying to reach, under-served communities,” Chris said. “We’re working with a company in Stafford, Va., called Cyber Bytes Foundation, and they’re doing the same thing. They are, and we are, actively looking for partners who are trying to equalize. We’re trying to level the playing field.”
Virginia and North Carolina schools present a natural market for Phase Dock’s curriculum. Soon to offer more curriculum with the help of NC IDEA’s grant, Phase Dock looks to be the content creator, Chris said, for even more geographically diverse service providers.
From IoT smart homes to WorkBench mini-cars to wearable technology, the Lehenbauers hope to appeal to STEM learners across gender and age divides with different kinds of technology.
“We’re very conscious of matching the technology to something that will draw everyone in,” Chris said.
From Maker Faires to manufacturing basements to mobile classrooms, Phase Dock is so much more than a mobile workspace—they’re a mission-focused company looking to bring computer engineering and STEM education to the masses.