Posted 10.26.15

Ian Charnas

by Ian Charnas


On the occasion of the New York World’s Fair of 1964, futurist and author Isaac Asimov posed the question: What will the world look like in 50 years? Asimov’s predictions for 2014 were impressively accurate, captivating and sobering.

This week, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) is hosting an Innovation Summit that will feature the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at the Richey Mixon building, a unique, university-based incubator with the capacity to dramatically change the city’s entrepreneurial culture. So, with all deference to Asimov, let me pose a somewhat less far-reaching question: What will Cleveland’s entrepreneurial landscape look like just five years from now, in 2020?

Founded on steel and auto manufacturing, Cleveland now has a strong higher education and medical sector that complements its revamped manufacturing base. Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, CWRU and a number of other institutions feed a biomedical sector that annually attracts hundreds of millions of dollars in international investment. Our city recently was ranked among the top 50 entrepreneur-friendly cities in the world.

Entrepreneurs attracted to innovation and the presence of JumpStart, LaunchHouse, BioEnterprise, the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center and others are establishing themselves in the region, with concentrations in University Circle and the Health Tech Corridor. A growing entrepreneurial culture is beginning to infuse innovation into one of America’s great industrial cities.

By 2020, think[box] will have accelerated this entrepreneurial culture and further established Cleveland as a national center of innovation and investment.

Students from CWRU’s engineering, law and business schools will collaborate with entrepreneurs in the seven-story, 50,000-square-foot Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at the Richey Mixon building, which will be free and open to the public.

The Sears think[box] ecosystem will evolve into one of the largest university-based innovation centers in the country, with each floor of the $35 million building supporting the needs of entrepreneurs.

Today’s toddlers in Cleveland will bring their dreams to think[box]’s first floor as school-age children in 2020. Here, the seeds of possibility will be cultivated and encouraged to grow as the next generation envisions products that can improve lives around the globe. As entrepreneurs advance in years and stages of their vision, they will move up through the building, from the second floor–filled with white boards and crafts to begin the prototyping process—to the third floor, where they will be able to produce prototypes overnight on 3D printers, completing in hours the innovative work that used to take weeks or even months.


By the time entrepreneurs graduate to the sixth floor, they will be ready for market research and investor conversations, interactions with law students and engineers who can help assemble the intellectual property and other building blocks required to establish a business.

Incubator space on the seventh floor will support entrepreneurs until they are ready to exist on their own.

The Millennial entrepreneurs who flock to Cleveland and CWRU’s Sears think[box] will be keen on developing products that will bring prosperity to the struggling areas of the world and technology to the technologically deprived. These social entrepreneurs will produce pedals that, when pushed, will charge cell phones; materials that will detect malaria; and medical devices that use polymers to prevent the spread of diseases such as Ebola. Still others will produce green technologies that make solar cells and wind turbines affordable for homes.

As the entrepreneurs of 2020 leave the halls of their schools and move beyond the walls of Sears think[box], the streets that connect University Circle to Public Square will be filled with start-ups and revitalized manufacturing space. Most of the businesses that outgrow Sears think[box]’s incubator will remain in Northeast Ohio, where the marketing, manufacturing and technical expertise exists to help them scale their business.

Entrepreneurs and those they employ will wish to live near their work, challenging the abilities of developers to produce enough urban apartments and rebuilt homes along the roads that feed University Circle and Midtown. Increasingly, these social entrepreneurs will commute to work on bicycles, encouraging bike lanes to be expanded in the city.

Asimov’s predictions of the world 50 years hence were based on observations of the World’s Fair displays. I have a far more tangible basis for making my five-year predictions, as many of the products I mentioned above are already in development.

The Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at the Richey Mixon building officially opened three of its floors in early October, and the balance of the building should open over the next three to five years. I’m confident that it will help make this 2020 vision a reality.

The Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at the Richey Mixon building will be open to those who are attending CWRU's Innovation Summit, October 26 to 28. Among the summit’s speakers are Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup; Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese; Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of; and Ellen Williams, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.



Ian Charnas is the manager of the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at the Richey Mixon building. He graduated from CWRU in 2005 with Bachelor’s Degrees in both computer and mechanical engineering. 

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