Block & Mortar Adoption: The Cleveland Blockchain Scene

Within the United States, there are blockchain hubs from coast to coast, whether that be San Francisco in the West, New York City in the Northeast, or Denver near the middle. Many of these locations make sense, too – San Fran is just north of tech-driven Silicon Valley, and New York has long been considered the financial capital of the world (FinTech is a natural extension of that).

Although these American metropolises have blockchain roots, smaller cities are joining the scene as well. Take our location, Reno. Nevada’s third-largest city after Las Vegas and Henderson, Reno is home to a handful of companies in the space, such as Filament, Sagebrush.Consulting, and Blockchains LLC.* The Biggest Little City is arguably turning into the Biggest Little Tech Hub.

Another salient (and unexpected) example lies across the country, nestled along the southern shore of Lake Erie: Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland is famous for its manufacturing foothold, though the city has diversified its economy to include the healthcare, biotechnology, and insurance sectors, among others. Part of this expansion has also involved greater tech innovation, with a recent focus on blockchain.

Enter Blockland Cleveland, an initiative to establish the city as a leader in blockchain-based solutions. The effort features multiple tenets, such as educating the future of blockchain professionals and developing real-world applications, but most notably, it calls for the cultivation of a local ecosystem.

Blockland Cleveland aims to enable this system through its decentralized leadership model, which comprises “a governing body of [10] nodes” led by blockchain thinkers across the city. Nodes range from Political Environment and Talent Development to Philanthropy and Legal System, each with its own goals.

One of the nodes, Research and Innovation, is co-chaired by Suzanne Rivera of Case Western Reserve University. This node primarily aims to onboard faculty, establish an operational structure for a think tank, and develop a research program agenda. The response so far from the Cleveland research community has been positive, according to Rivera.

“All the colleges and universities in the greater Cleveland area are participating enthusiastically in the Blockland movement,” she said. “We all see the great potential for this opportunity to take Cleveland from ‘rust-belt city’ to ‘tech mecca.'”

Indeed, the movement was sparked by a local with a vision: Ohio car dealer Bernie Moreno. After starting to work on a few blockchain startups, he saw the potential to transform Cleveland into the tech mecca Rivera suggests.

Although Blockland features a spectrum of voices in the community, Moreno calls himself a kind of cheerleader for the initiative. His dealerships were some of the first institutions within the greater Cleveland area to accept bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) as a payment method. Now, he estimates that there are probably three to four dozen businesses in Cleveland that accept digital currency.

Various institutions in the community have shown support for the initiative as well. One such organization is the Great Lakes Science Center, a museum and educational facility located in downtown Cleveland. The center began accepting bitcoin across its ticketing services on November 13.

Kirsten Ellenbogen, CEO of the center, said the decision to accept bitcoin represents “one small piece” in supporting the blockchain efforts around Cleveland and helping to grow the ecosystem. “It sends a clear signal,” she continued.

Within the center itself, Ellenbogen noted that she and her team are “seriously looking” at the role blockchain can further play, but first, they are investigating ways to explain the value of decentralized technologies like blockchain to the public, including through exhibits and programming. She believes that because of the technology’s varied applications, the public should be able to “wrap their heads around it.”

There are several industries within Cleveland where individuals can see examples of such applications. For instance, Prelude2Cinema (P2C), a local movie studio that helps artists develop brands, decided to incorporate blockchain technology into its business model. The P2C team launched a social network and sales platform called BlockCityP2C, which uses blockchain to verify the identity of its users.

The founder of P2C, Alex P. Michaels, maintains that his company “has found a place” within the movement. Besides working on BlockCityP2C, Michaels and his crew have assisted in marketing the Blockland initiative at the grassroots level. Plus, much like the Great Lakes Science Center, P2C joined in the Blockland spirit and began accepting bitcoin as payment on its television network, Prelude2CinemaTV.

Additionally, an overarching theme of diversity and inclusion appears to percolate throughout the initiative. Not only are there participants from various professional backgrounds; there are also many women and individuals from historically underrepresented groups, such as African Americans and other people of color, who occupy leadership positions. The number of women participating in the movement, for example, hovers around 40 percent. Rivera elaborated:

“Diversity and inclusion are absolutely essential to this movement because it’s about building a future of shared [prosperity] for the whole region. Every community is included, and every community stands to benefit. The selection of women leaders and leaders from groups historically underrepresented in tech fields was a deliberate decision.”

Michaels, too, believes that diversity is a boon to the Blockland initiative. Cleveland, like many cities, has a diverse and often disconnected population, but he thinks that everyone has a place within the movement to further make the city a blockchain center. “Anything that brings us together and draws on the strength of diversity and inclusiveness is a win for us all,” he continued.

A recent milestone for the initiative is the Blockland Solutions Conference, a four-day blockchain education event in the heart of Cleveland that commenced today, December 1. Attendees can get their hands dirty with code and problem-solving while “focus[ing] on solutions for business and government applications,” according to the conference website. Moreno hopes the event helps to persuade blockchain-focused startups to locate in Cleveland.

Apart from the Blockland movement, Ohio has seen its share of favorable blockchain- and cryptocurrency-related advancements. For instance, the state‘s treasurer, Josh Mandel, recently enabled Ohio-based businesses to register to pay their taxes in bitcoin. Although acceptance of the coin is contingent upon Mandel’s term in office, which ends in January 2019, he is “confident that this cryptocurrency initiative will continue” afterward.

On the legislative end, portions of SB300, an Ohio bill affirming the legal status of blockchain signatures and contracts, were included as amendments in the cybersecurity bill SB220, which was signed by Governor John Kasich in early August. (The original bill, however, failed to advance through the legislative process.)

It’s still early for Blockland Cleveland, but the movement has gathered considerable momentum thus far. The Midwestern city is certainly moving closer toward shedding its rusty patina in favor of a vibrant kaleidoscope full of decentralized tech innovations.

Moreno has one key recommendation for individuals skeptical of Cleveland: “Give it a look.”