Think[box] Radio

Stories from America’s coolest college innovation center

Think[box] Radio is a bi-monthly podcast coming to you from Sears think[box], the innovation center at Case Western Reserve University, the largest maker scene on an American college campus. We hope to share with you some of the magic that happens here and inspire your own maker dreams.

Your host, Robert Smith, is the former innovation economy reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The show is produced by Alex Zinni for the Case Alumni Association in cooperation with the Case School of Engineering.

Every episode features an innovator connected to Case Western Reserve University, one of the nation’s leading research universities. We let them tell us what drives them, where they get their ideas, and what tools seem to work best. So sit back, listen in, and learn why the CWRU motto is “Think beyond the possible.”

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Episode 8 - Kiju Lee: Building robots with heart


You’ve heard of getting social with media. How about with robots? Kiju Lee, PhD, sees that day coming. She’s the Nord Distinguished Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Case School of Engineering. Cooler than that, she’s a robotics expert who is expanding the state of the art. Kiju imbues robots with remarkable capabilities--like flexibility, artificial intelligence, even empathy.

Her latest creation, Woody, is a plywood and software “social robot” that knows how you’re feeling. Kiju and her team have trained Woody to recognize about 3,500 facial expressions. That’s less than the 10,000 expressions you’re capable of making, but more than your average couch potato is going to notice. In other words, if you’re feeling blue, it’s Woody who likely has a clue. She sees implications for elderly care.

Inspired by origami, she has designed miniature robots that are flexible and strong and that maybe could perform precision surgery, as well as big robots that pack up small and light enough to be stowed on space voyages.

She tests her robots at a novel testing center—a senior community in the Cleveland suburbs—where the interaction is both helpful to researchers and heartening to residents. Join us as we talk with Kiju about building robots that will be our tools, our helpers and maybe our companions.

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Kiju Lee, professor, robotics expert



Episode 7 - Rhys Hamlet and Andrea Norris - Why Case robotics rocks


Not long ago, the robotics team at the Case School of Engineering was a modest club struggling to compete. Suddenly, it’s a national high achiever and one of the largest student groups on campus. What happened?

Leadership helps. So does winning at exciting competitions. Robotics enthusiasm has swept the country and robotics clubs are booming at many high schools and colleges. But the robotics team headquartered at Sears think[box]—CWRUbotix--has soared faster and higher than most.

Last year, the team finished fourth at the national NASA Robotic Mining Competition, after placing 5th the year before. At the metal-busting national Combat Robot Tournament, the team from Case placed first—for the second straight year.

When it comes to collegiate robotics, CWRUbotix ranks among the elite. Much of the credit goes to Rhys Hamlet and Andrea Norris, two engineering students who lead the club. They keep more than 70 members busy designing, building and perfecting robots that can move, dig, attack and defend.

“We’ve been really trying to push the envelope to see what’s possible” and that attracts science and engineering students, said Rhys, the club president.

“When you build something and it actually works and goes on to do well in competition, that’s kind of addictive,” said Norris, the club treasurer and president-elect.

Join us as we talk with Andrea and Rhys about how to build a team that can build great robots in an age of robotics.

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Rhys Hamlet and Andrea Norris, leaders of CWRUbotix



Episode #6 Larry Sears - The Man Who Vanquished the Meter Reader


Some of us are old enough to remember the rap on the screen door, the gruff voice announcing “Gas man!” and how readily mom told him to come on in. He was already halfway down the basement stairs, flashlight in hand, heading for the gas meter. Just as quickly, he was back out the door and on to the next house.

It was a painfully inefficient means of calculating gas and water usage by thousands of customers and the energy industry had long sought a solution.

Larry Sears found it circa 1992. By designing a system of dedicated radio channels, long before cell phones or WIFI, he made it possible for utility meters to be read remotely. Today his technology dominates the market, but this is not a story of overnight success.

The 1969 graduate of Case Institute of Technology endured an entrepreneur’s odyssey after launching his electronics startup in Cleveland’s Little Italy, next door to campus. He still shudders to pass a Holiday Inn, he says, having spent so much time at trade shows trying to sell his invention.

He persevered. Today, he looks proudly upon Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box], the innovation center that he and his wife helped build with a $10 million gift. He shares his belief in hands-on engineering as an adjunct professor at the Case School of Engineering, and he’s a familiar sight on campus in his exquisitely restored classic sports car.

Listen as we chat with Larry Sears about engineering, entrepreneurship, and coming out a winner.

Think[box] Radio. Episode 6. Larry Sears: The man who vanquished the meter reader

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Larry Sears



Episode #5 Chris Carr: Galaxy Spotter


At Think[box] Radio, we don't just celebrate people who makes things. We celebrate people who make discoveries, too.

Not many astronomers discover a comet let alone a planet. But how about a whole galaxy? For stargazer Chris Carr, it’s one of the rewards of a childhood passion he’s been able to nurture at Case Western Reserve.

Now he’s hoping to encourage more people to look to the heavens and see what he sees.

Carr, a senior with a double major in physics and astronomy, has been fascinated with the stars since childhood. At Case, he gained access to tools that allow him to peer far beyond his imagination--like the Burrell Schmidt Telescope, a venerable spyglass to the cosmos that Case keeps pointed skyward at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

During a summer research project in 2017, Carr was studying some of the telescope’s deep sky image when he came upon a peculiar smudge. On closer examination with his advisor, Astronomy Professor Chris Mihos, it was determined he had detected an unknown galaxy—37 million light years away.

Carr and Mihos co-authored a paper describing the discovery for the Astrophysical Journal, inscribing both of their names in space history.

The young astronomer is far from finished. Carr wants to bring the stars closer to everyone. He created a show on the campus radio station WRUW-FM 91.1, Enter Galactic, which explores space mysteries. One of his pieces of advice for amateur astronomers is to start cheap. You don’t need a fancy telescope to scan the heavens, Carr says. A decent set of binoculars will work just fine.

Join us as we chat with one of the nation’s rising young astronomers and see how he is honing his space-age craft.

To see more from the Case School of Engineering, follow us on twitter @CaseAlumniAssoc, and check out our monthly newsletter on our website,

Think[box] Radio. Episode 5

Host: Robert Smith

Guest: Chris Carr

Producer: Alex Zinni

Chris Carr in the news: 5 questions with galaxy spotter, science radio show host and undergraduate student Chris Carr—The Daily



Episode #4 CWRU at CES 2019

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay there -- with special guest Bob Sopko


 So why do we lead our young innovators to Las Vegas every January, set up exhibits in the basement of a crowded convention hall, and display our ideas at the world’s largest consumer electronics show?

Bob Sopko knows.

As director of CWRU LaunchNet, he’s the pied piper of startup founders at Case Western Reserve. Recently, he led a dozen teams of students, staff and recent alumni to CES 2019, then brought them home emboldened. It was his sixth straight trip to CES, where Case stages the largest university presence.

In this special edition of Thinkbox Radio, we talk with Bob about the CES experience, why we do it, and what we learned this go ‘round. He tells us we’re seizing more than the opportunity to show off inventions. The mileau offers students a chance to make connections, woo investors, and learn the very public side of entrepreneurship.

Robert Steward understands. He's a junior biomedical engineering major who designed an exoskeleton to help people with physical disabilities. Who should stop by his booth, and ask about Enabled Robotics, but a robotics exec from Google. Now he’s mulling an internship.

Join us as we reprise the Case experience at CES 2019.

Think[box] Radio, Episode 4

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Bob Sopko and Robert Stewart



Episode #3 Prince Ghosh and the Startup Generation



Prince Ghosh represents a new kind of student and a new generation--the startup generation.

Midway through his 4th year at the Case School of Engineering, Prince Ghosh has already packed more into college than some people do in a career. He invented promising wind technology, launched a company, applied for patents and represented his university at prestigious startup competitions. All on the road to a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Prince is a great example of what some call the “startup generation”—students who come to college expecting to create something really cool, like, soon. They’re drawn to Case for resources like Sears think[box], the IP Venture Clinic and LaunchNet, the campus startup incubator.

“I tell incoming high school seniors that if you come to college and all you do is school, you’re wasting your money,” Ghosh said. “There’s so much more that a collegiate experience has to offer, particularly at a research university like Case.”

His bright idea was to apply plasma technology to wind turbines to make then spin faster. That idea, which he and classmates tested in an obscure campus wind tunnel, led to Boundary Labs and the finals of the 2018 CleanTech University Prize competition.

The New Jersey native has since pivoted toward improving wind turbine gear boxes with big data and sensor technology. He hopes to display his new ideas at CES 2019--January 8-11 in Las Vegas. Ghosh is one of several CWRU students will showcase their work in the University Innovations section of the world’ largest consumer electronics show.

We talked with Prince about what a young innovator can do with university resources, hutzpah, and an Amazon Prime account.

“People often think entrepreneurship is kind of straight line and there’s one right way to do it,” he said. “But that’s probably the furthest thing from the truth. You have to be nimble…willing to adapt…and pivot to what the market really needs.”

Think[box] Radio, Episode 3

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Prince Ghosh


Episode #2 Sarah Ryan: Rocket Woman



The Case Rocket Team has been making an impression at national competitions with rockets that soar high, land softly and deliver creative payloads. That means team members have been achieving in the maker space, where the competition rockets come together. And that’s why we were excited to meet with Sarah Ryan, the president of the Case Rocket Team.

Sarah is a senior pursuing a double major in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a minor in astronomy. She began on the rocket team her freshman year working on rocket payloads, rose to become treasurer and design lead and now leads one of the most technically ambitious clubs at the Case School of Engineering.

For Sarah, building award-winning rockets helps to fulfill a childhood dream. “Aerospace engineering has been a goal of mine for a very long time,” she said. “When I was really young, I started wanting to be an astronaut.”

Under her leadership, the team is taking on bigger challenges. Normally, the team builds a rocket required to reach 1,000 feet in altitude for the Battle of the Rockets competition in Culpeper, Virginia. This year, the team will be aiming for 10,000 feet, a ten-fold increase, for the Friends of Amateur Rocketry 1030 competition near Mojave, California.

With higher altitudes comes higher thrust and new challenges. The students need to worry about vibrations. Every piece of the rocket must be reinforced to deal with the higher forces. They are also working to build a lighter rocket entirely from fiberglass, which requires new methods of fastening and machining.

The club commands a busy workshop on the fifth floor of Sears think[box]. That’s where we met with Sarah. She talked about the designing and tooling that goes into a hot rocket, and the strategies the team uses to involve everyone in the innovation and handiwork.

Think[box] Radio, Episode 2

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Sarah Ryan



Episode #1 Ian Charnis: Maestro of the Makers



We launched Think[box] Radio to share and celebrate the innovation happening at the Case School of Engineering and at Sears think[box], the acclaimed innovation center on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. We can think of no better person to launch this series than the quietly audacious Ian Charnas.

He’s director of innovation and Technology at think[box], a well-known catalyst in Cleveland’s maker scene, and the kind of engineer who can draw a crowd. How? Well, he’s founder and conductor of the Tesla Orchestra. And you should hear it—just to see it—as he evokes sound and lightning bolts from twin giant Tesla Coils.

He also gave the world the waterfall swing, again proving that engineering can be performance art. You get the idea. By blending art and technology, Ian tries to connect cool and smart in new ways. At think[]box], he’s able to offer every imaginable tool to help aspiring makers and inventors join him in his crusade. We talk with Ian about his vision for think[box], the essential ingredients to innovation, and why it’s OK to get started making a 30-cent shower curtain ring on a $100,000 3D printer.

To see more from the Case School of Engineering, follow us on twitter

@CaseAlumniAssoc, and check out our monthly newsletter on our website,

Think[box] Radio. Episode 1

Host: Robert Smith

Producer: Alex Zinni

Guest: Ian Charnas