Greater Cleveland college makerspaces are inspiring tomorrow’s innovation workforce

Local institutions are leaders in innovation and creativity

By Douglas J. Guth/Special to Greater Cleveland Partnership

Colleges and universities that thrive on innovation can attract a wide variety of learners ready to spin out any number of amazing ideas. With makerspaces multiplying on campuses nationwide, Greater Cleveland institutions are building dedicated environments where creativity and collaboration are crucial watchwords.

Kent State University is among 150 educational institutions nationwide with an R1 status for research, a prestigious designation underscoring the breadth of research and scholarship at the university.

The honor from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is not spun out of thin air. Local colleges including Kent are leading regional innovation efforts through open-access maker spaces, part of a larger mission to spread exciting new ideas across the region.

Kent’s Design Innovation Hub – or DI Hub for short – encourages scholastic alliances among students, faculty and the community at large. Collaborations occur in classrooms, event venues and maker environments committed to cross-disciplinary communication and problem-solving.

Students from any major are welcome, notes J.R. Campbell, executive director of Kent’s design innovation initiative.  A recent fashion hackathon had participants designing tech-enhanced garments and retail data innovations. In a separate event, students from multiple majors connected augmented reality to children’s storytelling.

Such eclectic programming breaks down barriers between departments and the learners themselves, says Campbell. Intentionality around collaboration even trickles down to a large dining facility on the DI Hub’s top floor.

“The idea is to bring kids into the building,” Campbell says. “It’s not about one college, or research institution, or degree program. Our goal with the hub is to help people become better and more fearless collaborators. To jump out of their comfort zones and lead the way to innovative outcomes.”

Top Photo: Kent’s Design Innovation Hub. Photo by Rami Daud.

Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University
Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University. (Photo by Russell Lee.)

A network of idea generation

Cleveland has its own role to play in the university-based innovation game. Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University is one of the largest college innovation centers in the world. The seven-story, 50,000-square-foot complex offers top-line technology and equipment including 3D printers, laser cutters, embroidery machines and more.

Even Think[box]’s layout is meant to facilitate idea generation, says Michael Goldberg, executive director of Case Western’s Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship on the innovation facility’s top floor.

The center is broken up into seven floors, with participants advancing upward in the order of brainstorming, physical prototyping and company creation. Think[box] has also been the launching pad for any number of student-led spinoffs. Cleveland-based startup CLEANR, which operates from the center, develops filtration technology to keep plastic microfibers from being discharged into sewer systems during the laundry cycle.

Spearheaded by a trio of Case Western students, the company is furthering the technology’s reach via a new partnership with a German mesh filtration manufacturer. For Goldberg, the team-up is emblematic of the university’s high-powered entrepreneurial focus – one further buoyed by its standing as an R1-designated institution.

“We have tours where students are visiting Think[box] and are impressed by what they see,” says Goldberg. “The university grew facilities like this so students could innovate and try new things.”

 Tri-C's Ideationstation
Tri-C’s Ideationstation. (Photo courtesy of Tri-C)

What is your superpower?

Case Western has a history of discovery, dating back to 1884 when chemical magnate Herbert Dow arrived for his first year at the Case School of Applied Science. That proud legacy continues at Think[box] with startup competitions as well as robust day-to-day research.

According to Case Western, the maker space receives 88,000 visits by more than 7,000 unique users annually. Opened in 2012 and expanded three years later, Think[box] has become a focal point for dream makers of all stripes, Goldberg says.

“You can just walk around here and see people doing different things,” says Goldberg. “Having this shared space is critically important. When you look nationally at thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems, it’s the universities and academic centers that are the key drivers.”

Two-year schools have a role to play in the burgeoning network of ideas as well, says Alethea Ganaway, program manager of additive manufacturing and the Ideation Station at Cuyahoga Community College.

Part learning lab and part fabrication space, the Ideation Station provides workshops alongside hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programs for area youth. Laser cutters, 3D printers and industrial-grade fabrication machinery are harnessed by students and residents of all ages – a recent “guitar summer camp” saw participants build a working instrument using computer-assisted design software and a CNC machine.

“It’s a block of wood that students shaped themselves,” says Ganaway. “They got to see how a product starts and then comes to an end. The thought was getting students more exposure to the same type of equipment they would have at a job.”

The facility’s manufacturing focus has a myth-busting element as well, insofar as proving the industry is not dark, dirty or dangerous, Ganaway remarks. Underserved populations not usually exposed to the possibilities of STEAM are the main beneficiaries of this work.

“STEAM can also mean manufacturing,” Ganaway says. “You can design a car, an iPhone or any other object, but those have to be manufactured. Students don’t always understand the connection between product development and the end game of how it’s built. For our students, we are exposing them to things they’ve never seen, and helping them understand how they can start their career path.”

Ross Cameron, Vice President of Innovation and Growth at Greater Cleveland Partnership, lauds the region’s academic institutions for placing a heightened emphasis on cutting-edge research.

Case Western’s biomedical research team was recently profiled on 60 Minutes for its neuroprosthetics work, while Lorain County Community College built a work-based learning program centered on Industry 4.0. adoption.

“The great thing about some of these maker spaces is that they’re also open to the public,” he says. “They’re a wonderful resource for aspiring inventors or entrepreneurs, and we’ve got them spread across the region ”

Kent official Campbell is thrilled about the innovation workforce emerging from university-backed efforts like the DI Hub, Think[box] and the Ideation Station. Exploration at these pioneering centers can result in new products, fresh business models, and a student population eager to explore every career option.

“What does the workforce need to look like?” Campbell said. “We can help our students be better collaborators – to recognize their superpowers. That’s where the human element of the workforce is paramount.”

  Read More

Cleveland startups raised $578 million last year – Greater Cleveland Partnership

Forbes Under 30 Listing: Spotlighting the innovators – Greater Cleveland Partnership

Greater Cleveland Partnership’s All In vision for a Great Region on a Great Lake has five key priorities: Dynamic Business, Abundant Talent, Inclusive Opportunity, Appealing Community and Business Confidence. All of our work ties back to these values. This story relates to Dynamic Business.


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