By Lauren Sable Freiman | Photo by McKinley Wiley
At first glance, the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears thinkbox is on trend with the maker-spaces that are popping up at universities around the world. But inside its walls, it is unlike any other maker-space in the United States or Europe.
“This is not just a maker space, which is the flavor-of–the-month at universities,” Executive Director Malcolm Cooke says. “It’s an ecosystem around innovation and entrepreneurship. That is where thinkbox is unique in the academic arena. Most universities have labs and workshops. What we provide under one roof is all of the infrastructure around supporting entrepreneurship.”
After spring semester, the first in the renovated space, Cooke says Sears thinkbox has been successful in attracting a wide range of users. While the university’s Case School of Engineering has stewardship of thinkbox, its use is not limited to those in the engineering realm. Among thinkbox’s 5,000 monthly users, 9 percent, Cooke says, are from the local community, 15 percent are from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and 40 percent represent the Case School of Engineering.
“We have artists that come in and use our laser cutters to make templates that they use to apply paints,” Cooke says. “We have had people make prototypes of footwear, clothing embedded with electronics, flat-pack furniture, 3D topographical models of sites for architecture. It hugely varies, which is awesome. We’ve always envisioned it as a community resource, with as few and as low a barrier as possible for anyone to walk through and use the space.”
Although only three of seven floors of the Sears thinkbox, located in the Richey Mixon Building, are fully renovated and open for use, the vision upon completion is that entrepreneurs can take an idea and start a business by moving up through the building, one floor at a time. Upon completion of the building, the first floor will serve as community space for sharing and building ideas, the second floor will be focused on ideation and collaboration, where users can start flushing out ideas and making rough prototypes, and the third floor will be equipped with digital prototyping equipment, where prototypes can be fabricated quickly in a variety of materials using laser cutters, 3D printers, a computer-controlled wood router, large-format printer, vinyl cutter, a circuit board router, and many other pieces of equipment.
The fourth floor will be equipped as a traditional machining and fabrication workshop, while the fifth floor will be a project floor for assembling the pieces. The sixth floor will be dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship and will be the home of an intellectual property clinic staffed by Case Western Reserve law students and faculty as well as CWRU LaunchNet, which nurtures student start-ups. The last rung of the ladder, the seventh floor, will be an incubator, a space for entrepreneurs to officially launch their businesses.
The fact that there are no restrictions or constraints on what Sears thinkbox users are able to create means that the innovation happening within its walls is world class. Providing a space for creation has led to a sharing of ideas and accidental collisions that Cooke says have been the basis for creating businesses.
As he and his team press forward with the remaining renovations, Cooke says growing out of the space in two to three years is a strong and wonderful possibility. “When the university gave us the building, our team worked with local architects studioTECHNE on how we were going to design and equip all seven floors and its 50,000 square feet of space,” Cooke says. “Now, after all our planning, we know what it will look like ultimately. It’s vibrant, it’s exciting, it’s dynamic, it’s collaborative. It’s just an awesome space and an awesome process to observe.”
For more information: engineering.case.edu/thinkbox