Make it better: Cleveland makers embrace innovation as a benchmark of growth

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CLEANR co-founder Max Pennington is excited to talk about innovation. After all, creativity is the center point of the Cleveland-based startup intent on keeping plastic microfibers from flowing into sewer systems during the laundry cycle.

Building a transformative technology in Northeast Ohio can have knock-on effects locally as well, such as drawing young talent that might otherwise look to the coasts, says Pennington, whose nascent filtration company runs out of the Think[box] makerspace at Case Western Reserve University.

“People want to work in a fun, fast, challenging environment,” says Pennington. “That culture can draw talent that also wants to be around each other. Without innovation or having a unique approach, you won’t be able to get people to buy into what you’re doing.”

CLEANR founders Chip Miller, Max Pennington and David DillmanCLEANR founders Chip Miller, Max Pennington and David DillmanPennington’s forward-thinking attitude is a key element of "Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio" The change-focused brainchild of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET)—backed by groups including Team NEO, Greater Cleveland Partnership, and Case Western Reserve University—recognizes a changing marketplace where innovation is vital to growth.

Unveiled in 2021, the report imagines Northeast Ohio as a creative hub—producing the next generation of cutting-edge talent, a population ideally intent on joining established startups or launching their own innovations.

Manufacturing-centric enterprises like CLEANR—a winner of MAGNET’s MSPIRE pitch competition—are charging toward a high-tech future that is rapidly leaving other, slower-moving firms behind.

CLEANR employs about 15 contract engineers for its filter technology built to remove 90% of microfiber plastics during the wash cycle.

This effort takes place at Think[box], a campus innovation center that offers 50,000 square feet and seven floors of top-line technology and equipment. CLEANR currently takes up most of one floor as its founders continue to iterate on their invention.

“Consumers are willing to pay for a convenience that will make their lives easier and better,” Pennington says. “Improving on what people are looking for is the only way to stay alive as a company.”

Skuld CEO Sarah JordanSkuld CEO Sarah JordanLife on the front edge

MAGNET assists entrepreneurs all the way from early-stage prototyping to bringing products to market. In the case of Skuld—which designed a hybrid manufacturing process that merges 3D printing with lost-foam casting to create complex metal pieces—the advocacy group helped CEO Sarah Jordan market her wares to potential customers.

That is not to say Skuld is waiting around to get noticed. Based in Springfield, Ohio, the business is readying the launch of a small machine system that will allow other makers to utilize its additive manufacturing method for aluminum parts.

Ramping up production through new technology has been an exciting journey for Jordan and her team, she says.

“Our attitude is if people say something can’t be done, then it’s ‘challenge accepted,” says Jordan. “It’s in the company DNA to have that attitude. If you don’t embrace innovation, you might be obsolete, like what happened with the steel mills in the 1970s. You want to be on the front edge rather than the trailing edge.”

Skuld boasts a broad talent base that reflects Jordan’s own career path, which includes aerospace, marketing, and the nonprofit sector.

“The people on the shop floor come from different educational and economic backgrounds,” she says. “You don’t want to fish from the same pond, and people want a job where they’re making a difference. They don’t just want to be a cog in a machine.”

Seraphina Safety founder Kelly FrankoSeraphina Safety founder Kelly FrankoAn environment of limitless potential

Innovation is a telltale sign of company growth, notes Kelly Franko, founder of Seraphina Safety, a creator of safety apparel for women in dangerous working environments.

Franko’s line of flame-resistant clothing keeps women safe from direct flame, extreme heat, and other thermal hazards found in oil and gas and similar industries.

Franko designs her products with fabrics from a supplier in Utah. Unveiled in 2021, the business is now developing its own heat-fighting fabric.

“The fabric would be proprietary, giving us the ability to create more of a distinction and diversification,” she says. “Right now, we’re pushing the limits of what we can do and how we can do it differently.”

Asking “Why not?” has long-term implications for a brand that seeks to emulate big-ticket clothing makers such as Lululemon and Patagonia. Brand awareness is part of that equation—another is cracking a distribution network where men’s apparel remains king, Franko says.

“We’re trying to gain access to a market that doesn’t want to do smaller distribution numbers,” she explains. “As a smaller manufacturer, how do we gain access? We’re going directly to companies and giving them an option for no minimum orders. It could be for three women or 3,000. We’re meeting companies where they are, so they have options.”

Flexibility is key to the innovative mindset, says CLEANR co-founder Pennington. Spread that approach throughout a region and the potential is limitless, he believes.

“It creates a positive feedback loop, then it’s about having a champion in the region you can point to,” he says. “Look at this company that came from Cleveland and succeeded. There’s a great opportunity to build that [innovative] economy here.”

This is part two in a five-part series on MAGNET’s “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio—a vision for the future of manufacturing in Northeast Ohio as a leader in high-tech smart manufacturing—and the four pillars to the blueprint: Innovation, Transformation, Talent, and Leadership. 

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.