A Q&A with Ian Charnas, manager of CWRU’s think[box]
How and when did think[box] come about? Where did the idea start, and who spearheaded it?
In March 2012, think[box] opened in a temporary 2,500-square-foot space on Case Western Reserve University’s campus thanks to a generous gift by CWRU alum and wonderful human being Barry Romich. The facility really took off and before long was receiving thousands of visits a month. University Trustee Larry Sears along with other major supporters led the efforts to procure a new and larger facility, which led us to opening think[box] in a 50,000-square-foot space in October 2015.
Most people don’t know what an open-access innovation center is. How would you describe it? What is its purpose? 50,000 square feet of what?
We describe think[box] as an innovation-focused makerspace. Now, "makerspace" is still a new term for many people, but think of a metal shop and a wood shop combined with all that new-fangled stuff. 3D printing, laser cutting, electronics, textiles, media, you get the idea. We have floors dedicated to prototyping and fabrication, as well as offices of support for entrepreneurship for projects that have the potential to turn into businesses and create jobs.
How has it succeeded, so far?
Innovation at think[box] is alive and well. More than 64 companies and startups have used the facility to raise more than $6.2 million in funding.
What types of things do people make there?
We see everything and everyone, from students working on academic coursework and research projects to startup companies and even folks working on hobbies and crafts. Startups and projects include medical devices, clean energy solutions, consumer electronics, aviation, robotics, as well as art and fashion, and much more.
How many visitors each month?
Currently think[box] receives on average more than 5,000 visits each month. On campus, only the gym and the library receive more visits, according to the provost's data.
Of these, how many are CWRU students, how many faculty, how many alumni and how many from the community?
Around 80 percent of our visits are CWRU persons (students, staff, and faculty) while 15 percent are from the neighboring Cleveland Institute of Art. We're very happy about that, of course, because when you get those designers and artists together with our scientists and engineers, and then you add law students and business students, now you have a real-world team that can take a project much further than any one of them could on their own. So that gets us to 95 percent, and the remaining 5 percent are general community members, including folks off the street, alumni, local entrepreneurs, and more.
Do local grade school and high school classes visit for STEM education?
Currently think[box] can host tours of K-12 students; however, the facility isn't set up to host entire classes working on projects. Individual K-12 students can attend with their parents and a signed waiver. Full details on our K-12 policies are available on our website.
How do you get the word out to the community?
Because of our focus on entrepreneurship, our primary outreach is to the local entrepreneur ecosystem -- groups like JumpStart, LaunchPad, FlashStarts, BizDom, and other accelerators and incubators. These groups have each sent startups over to think[box] to take advantage of the facilities here, and, in turn, CWRU has sent student startups to incubate with each of those groups.
I see the list of equipment online. Where did it come from?
The equipment at think[box] was selected by staff after careful consideration of features and after visiting several dozen high-profile makerspaces and shops around the nation, including visits to MIT, Stanford, and other highly regarded institutions.
What is your role there?
As the manager, my role involves fundraising, communications and promoting national visibility, overseeing selection of large equipment, recruiting and training staff, managing strategic projects, and organizational partnership development.
Is training available?
Yes, training is available on all of our machines. Users are expected to do their own design work (we do not offer design help) but staff are here to help show you how to safely operate the equipment.
How can think[box] help manufacturers, and what is its role in contributing to a skilled workforce?
The role of think[box] is to give free, open access to millions of dollars of high-tech prototyping equipment. When it's time to go to manufacture, we help link entrepreneurs with (ideally local) manufacturers so they can grow their business.
Gina M. Tabasso, marketing communications specialist, HGR Industrial Surplus, www.hgrinc.com