Photo of Ian Charnas
Ian Charnas

From think[box] pioneer to California dreamer: Ian Charnas’ trailblazing journey in innovation to take new turn at CrunchLabs

In 2019, Ian Charnas (CWR ’05) solved what may be one of the most irksome problems to ever face humanity—at least in his opinion. He modified his car so the windshield wipers sync to the beat of whatever music he’s listening to. Why? Because he simply yearned for a more harmonious driving experience—one in which automotive accessories could feel the rhythm of sweet, sweet music. 

For as impressive of a feat as that was, it doesn’t come close to ranking among Charnas’  greatest accomplishments. Among them: He played a pivotal role creating the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University, which is now the largest open-access university-based innovation center and makerspace in the United States. 

Ian Charnas with [thinkbox] staff

After serving as one of its first directors and playing a leading role in the world-class facility for more than a decade, Charnas is marking his last day at CWRU Nov. 30 before moving on to a new challenge—taking a senior engineering role at CrunchLabs, the umbrella company that manages Mark Rober’s YouTube channel. Rober is arguably the world’s most popular science and engineering YouTuber, with a reputation akin to those of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Mr. Wizard.

“The mission is to get kids excited about science and engineering, and many of our [STEM] students here at CWRU have told me that watching Mark Rober videos were a part of their journey to getting where they are today,” Charnas explained. “That is a mission I can enthusiastically support, and I’m confident that being the senior engineer for the channel will be a meaningful chapter in my life.”

Humble beginnings

Charnas with Sears think[box] staff

Twelve years ago, the CWRU double alumnus was recruited by Larry Sears as the very first staff member at think[box]. At that time, think[box] was located on the second floor of the Glennan Building.

The decision was pivotal. According to Jim McGuffin-Cawley, faculty director of think[box] and the Arthur S. Holden Professor at the engineering school, hiring Charnas was important to Sears think[box] becoming what it is today: an iconic seven-story, 50,000-square-foot public entrepreneurship ecosystem that welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each year.

“Ian was the person who envisioned it as a no-charge, open-to-the-public facility,” McGuffin-Cawley said. “He was the one who selected all of the equipment, and he recruited and hired a lot of the people who became the staff—many of whom are still here. Ian was really the means by which the vision was initially realized. The team has grown and think[box] thrives because of the efforts of many, but Ian set the process into motion.”

McGuffin-Cawley said Charnas also worked hand in glove with development staff, faculty members, key alumni, internal and external partners, and university idea leaders to develop the vision that became think[box]. He then helped that team to support the significant fundraising used to refurbish the building, cover the cost of equipment, run programs, and seed its endowment.

Creating a culture 

Beyond his visionary and fundraising abilities, Charnas excelled at providing a compelling narrative to those who came to visit. As McGuffin-Cawley put it, Charnas created a culture that was very inviting to people from a wide set of backgrounds and skills. 

Ainsley Buckner can attest to this. When she met Charnas in 2011 on a bike ride around Cleveland, he mentioned think[box] to her, which was still just an idea at the time. She began using it as a member of the public in 2013 and continued using it at her job at an art nonprofit through 2017.

“I was using think[box] to help do all the art projects at Progressive Arts Alliance, and Ian found out about that and was very proactive in trying to accommodate me using the space as a community member,” Buckner said. “When there was a job opening, Ian was like, ‘You should apply.’”

So, she did. Buckner has been working at the makerspace for almost seven years now, first as the prototyping manager and now as the director of prototyping, art and community engagement.

“Recruiting Ainsley was no small task,” McGuffin-Cawley explained. “She brings a lot to think[box], yet she originally didn’t see herself in the role; it was Ian who sort of presented it to her in a way that she could embrace. He brought her on board and we’re really very fortunate to have her.”

Ian Charnas (back center) with students

Engaging the community

In Buckner’s view, what sets Charnas apart from other innovators is how he approaches projects without limitations.

“It’s not like he thinks about how much it’s going to cost and what all of the restrictions are,” she said. “He’s a big picture kind of person, while still being realistic. He doesn’t allow the details or the execution to get in the way of his initial brainstorming, which allows him to be a leader but also be more creative in his approach.”

She believes one of his many projects, Frostbites Cafe, encapsulates his creativity and collaborative approach to leadership. Charnas had an idea in 2015 that if Lake Erie got frozen enough that you could drive a car on it, it would be a perfect time to have a pop-up cafe on the ice.

“Are you allowed to have a pop-up cafe on the lake? Who knows? He kind of finds loopholes in little things to make sure he’s doing things legally and safely,” Buckner said.

Charnas kept testing how deep the ice was, and when a February day came that it was frozen enough, they gathered all of the materials his team created at think[box], set up the cafe and gave out hot chocolate and chili.

“It was super fun, and Ian is so good at engaging the community,” Buckner added. “He had a friend who was a chef and friends who did acting be the hostesses, and he made it an experience.”

The next chapter

While Charnas’ new home in sunny California likely won’t be the ideal place for another iteration of Frostbites Cafe, there’s at least one idea he hopes to bring to his role at CrunchLabs: think[box]’s operational efficiency.

“After more than 500,000 visits, we’ve become experts at think[box] in organizing chaos,” Charnas said. “The way we store tools and the way we do maintenance and inventory have been the subject of countless tours and emails from other universities, and a clean and organized shop is a pleasure to use. I look forward to sharing some of our organizational DNA with the shop at CrunchLabs.”

While Charnas is often credited with starting think[box], he believes he simply did his part—alongside so many others.

“I believe think[box] is a jewel in the [Case Western Reserve] crown, and it was built one step at a time, by countless people, who each supported the goal,” Charnas said. “I’m happy and frankly relieved to be leaving think[box] in very capable hands.”

Discover more about Sears think[box] and learn more about CrunchLabs.