Bringing Dreams to Life: CWRU’s New think[box] Is an Inventor’s Paradise

These are high-tech times we’re living in, when lasers make art and 3-D printers produce detailed plastic prototypes of never-before-seen products. In the name of innovation and economic development, wouldn’t it be great to gather all those high-tech tools into one welcoming space and make them available to inventors, tinkerers, and artists alike?

That’s the basic idea behind Case Western Reserve University’s new Sears think[box], one of the largest university-based innovation centers in the world. Housed inside the Richey Mixon Building (11201 Cedar Ave.), a former cold-storage warehouse with seven floors and more than 50,000-square-feet of work space, this $35 million project provides support for everyone — students, faculty, alumni and members of the community — to tinker and creatively invent.

In addition to the state-of-the-art equipment, computers, work stations, storage, and meeting space, think[box] offers training, tutorials, and links to other services for funding, business and legal advice, advanced machining, and more. The goal is to bring great ideas to fruition by providing the full range of necessary services.

“In simple terms, think[box] breaks down barriers to innovation,” says manager Ian Charnas. “Sometimes people have an idea but don’t have access to the things that allow them to implement it. And ‘access’ can mean more than just equipment: It can mean training, legal advice, patent assistance or help in overcoming a host of other barriers.”

While think[box] has existed since 2012, its October 2015 move to the Richey Mixon Building has allowed it to grow, in Mr. Charnas’ words, “from a tinkerer’s playground to an inventor’s entrepreneurial paradise.”

Students from around the world are being drawn to CWRU to innovate and incubate their businesses, making think[box] an economic catalyst for the city. “People don’t realize that Case isn’t just an Ohio university; it’s a national university,” Mr. Charnas says. “As such, more than 75 percent of our students are from outside Ohio, and that includes international students as well. Some of them will go on to get jobs at Apple or Microsoft, and that’s great. But our goal with think[box] is to keep the best of the best here.

“In fact, just in the past two years, we’ve had more than 30 student startups emerge from think[box], generating $3.5 million in external funding, more than three dozen jobs, and more than two dozen patents.”

And like many other CWRU facilities and resources, think[box] is open to residents of Judson Park and Judson Manor through the Judson-CWRU partnership that supports lifelong learning. Better still, the innovation center is well within walking distance of Judson Manor.

Gretchen Larson, Hope Hungerford, and Paul and Jean Ingalls were recently among the first Judson residents to tour the new think[box] space, getting a first-hand look at the computerized router, a 3-D stereo inspection microscope, laser cutters, a photo table, a computerized sewing-and-embroidery machine, a printed circuit board router, a full complement of hand tools and, perhaps most impressively, several types of 3-D printers available for projects large and small.

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“I’ve wanted to see a 3-D printer in operation for a long time,” said Mrs. Larson, a retired librarian and CWRU graduate. “It’s like something from the future, and very exciting to finally watch one operate.”

In fact, the group got an impromptu colloquium on the printer’s applications from CWRU senior Danny Smith, a mechanical engineering student who was using the printer to prototype his “bubble gun,” a novel device that potentially could be used in the classroom to demonstrate the properties of gasses.

“Right now I’m focused on graduating,” Mr. Smith laughed. “Then we’ll see if there is a market for it.”

Inventors like Danny, however, have reason for optimism. So far, projects designed and/or supported by think[box] have posted an impressive track record. That includes a portable proximity card reader already in use at the university; a patent-pending wind turbine with vastly improved power output; the stand-up, adjustable-height Jaswig desk, currently in use around the world; and electronics prototyped in think[box] that can turn the heartbeat of an automobile driver into a light show, using electroluminescent paint.

Of course, creativity isn’t limited to engineers. Tour guide Jenny Lin, a second-year civil engineering student from New York City with a strong interest in art, is currently using one of the think[box] laser cutters to create a landscape featuring the Chicago skyline. The piece will be part of a CWRU art exhibition this spring.

“Artists, including students from the Cleveland Institute of Art, come in and use the equipment for all sorts of projects,” Ms. Lin told the group.

The Judson residents were visibly impressed. “This would be like a candy store for students,” said Mrs. Ingalls. “What a gift to be able to come in here and explore all the options.”

“This is a wonderful addition to our city,” Mrs. Hungerford added. “Just think: Anyone can come in here and bring their dreams to life.”

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