'A Space to Be an Entrepreneur and Not Feel Like You Have Leprosy Here in Cleveland'

An abandoned car dealership has been transformed into a lively space for Cleveland's nerds and entrepreneurs alike.

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Dar Caldwell (blue sweatshirt) in BABL Media's office at Shaker LaunchHouse.

One thing that makes the New York and San Francisco startup scenes especially vibrant is the connections the tech companies have to the more general creative ferment. If you look at who ends up at O'Reilly's FooCamp (or TED or PopTech or Social Media week for that matter), it's not just developers and business guys, but a diverse mix of people trying to do new things in the arts, news, science, and other fields too new to be named.

At many incubators and accelerators, the nuts-and-bolts of putting a company together dominate the thinking and the space. While some have beautiful buildings, inside, they're still mostly cubicles set into bare-brick rooms.

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That's not the case at Cleveland's Shaker LaunchHouse, where I put in a too-brief visit this week. Run by native Clevelander Dar Caldwell, LaunchHouse takes a bunch of the weird and geeky things going on in the Bay and compresses them into one glorious space filled with entrepreneurs, developers, designers, and (I use this word lovingly) nerds.

"This is an invention and prototyping space. So, the Cleveland Hacker Space runs out of here," Caldwell says. "We invest in high-growth-potential technology companies, but in terms of the types of people that are out here, it's everything from food, inventors, hackers, urban agriculture, musicians, rappers, artists. A fucking awesome community."

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Dar Caldwell at LaunchHouse.

"I'm obsessed with Cleveland, but I wouldn't be here if it weren't for this space," Caldwell admits. "We watched all of our friends -- the best and brightest we knew -- leaving town, and everyone on the news was preaching brain drain, but no one was actually taking action on it. So, we just sunk in and started investing some of our own money into it. The first couple ones were flops and from that, we saw what we needed to put in place: the community, but also just a space to be an entrepreneur and not feel like you have leprosy here in Cleveland where other people are just punching the clock. We needed to increase the sense of urgency by getting everyone together, giving them plenty of caffeine, and letting them go."

The LaunchHouse sits on the border between a fairly poor area of Cleveland -- Mt. Pleasant -- and a quite fancy independent city (that is still basically Cleveland) called Shaker Heights. In Mt. Pleasant, the median home price is less than $50,000.  As you drive down Union to Kinsman, it's clear that Mt. Pleasant still has its residents, but its lost almost all the businesses that used to line its main thoroughfares. When you cross 154th, Kinsman turns into Chagrin Boulevard and you're in Shaker Heights, where the median house costs almost $190,000.

Housed in an old car dealership, the LaunchHouse uses the front showspace for the more standard companies, cramming them into every corner of the humming location. But out back in a massive, high-ceilinged garage, Caldwell's stocked the place with a bunch of people doing fun stuff. He says that they occasionally have events there with 500 or even 1000 people.

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