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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Blockland Backers Dream of a Cleveland Tech Mecca

A major effort is underway to brand Cleveland as a national tech hub.

Blockland is the brainchild of a Cleveland luxury car dealer who’s put together an A-team of backers of blockchain technology.

But what is blockchain and what can it do?

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at the challenges of making Cleveland a tech Mecca.

There's a whiring noise coming from William Beutler's west side basement.

"It's the miners," he says, "they're loud."

Powerful fans cool Beutler's homemade computer banks. Their buzzing could be the sound of Cleveland’s economic future.  

William Beutler is one of a handful of Bitcoin miners in Cleveland. His home-built computer hardware works to secure the cryptocurrency in hacker-proof 'blocks'. A string of secure blocks makes up a blockchain, a tamper-proof ledger shared across a network.

Beutler is part of a small community of cryptocurrency enthusiasts in Cleveland.

He’s ‘mining’ for Bitcoin, probably the best known cryptocurrency.

"The computers are trying to create a block,” he says, “and a block is basically all the transactions that have occurred recently on the Bitcoin network.”

It’s like a bank ledger. The block protects the ledger, like a safe, and Beutler’s computers are working to create the combination.

Once the combination is created, the Bitcoin inside the block is safe from hackers. Stack those blocks on top of each other and you have a blockchain.

In the case of Bitcoin, its blockchain contains every transaction ever made with the cryptocurrency, dating back to its invention ten years ago.

Beyond Bitcoin
"Cryptocurrency is one application that uses blockchain technology,"  says Bernie Moreno, spiritual leader of the Blockland Cleveland crusade, "but there are thousands of other applications.”

We’re meeting at his Mercedes dealership in North Olmstead, where Moreno says his interest in blockchain was sparked by his son.

“About two and a half years ago my son came to me and said, 'take all of your money and invest it in Bitcoin,'" says Moreno, "I had no idea what Bitcoin was.”

Moreno did not take his son’s advice. But he did spend time learning about the technology behind Bitcoin.

Now he is telling anyone who will listen that blockchain can lay the foundation of a new era of prosperity in Cleveland.

“If you’re going to have a blockchain startup," he says, "this is the place you do it."  If you’re a tech investor or software developer, "Cleveland is the place you do it.”

Blockchain, he predicts, will soon be used for voting, municipal bonds, deeds, digital car titles, digital drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, college degrees, medical records, all done easier and cheaper online using secure blockchain technology.

The Blockland vision
Moreno has put together a ten-part plan fast-tracking Cleveland’s transformation from rust-belt to tech belt, culminating in the Blockland Solutions Conference in December.

“Right now we’re creating an army of people to go out there and spread this gospel, so to speak, throughout the community.”

His committee of co-chairs is a who’s who list of Cleveland movers and shakers.

Among them is Vice President of research at Case Western Reserve University, Suzanne Rivera

“I really think of it as a movement,” Rivera says, adding that Case is "all in."

Suzanne Rivera, Vice President of research at Case Western Reserve University, is co-chair of the research node of Blockland Cleveland. It's one of 10 nodes that bring together Cleveland business, government, and thought leaders in the plan to make the region a tech-hub by 2020.

“This is going to be the way of the future," she says, "we can either let it pass us by, or we can seize this opportunity.”

The Blockland initiative has also teamed with the Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto, a think-tank that’s laying out road-maps for business uses of the technology.

Managing director Hilary Carter says Cleveland is the first city in the U.S. to recieve access to the institute's collection of white papers laying out uses of blockchain in 80 business sectors.

Carter is preaching a new economic vision made possible by locally developed online platforms that cut out the middlemen.

She says, “blockchain is the technology poised to disrupt the very centralized players that have profited from the first era of the internet, the Facebooks, the Ubers, the Air BnB’s,  the Open Tables.”

The road ahead
Blockland is driven by the personal charisma of Bernie Moreno, who resists comparisons to another inspirational figure. “I know LeBron James," he says, "and I’m no LeBron James.”

For Moreno, Blockland is Cleveland, and it only works, “when the average citizen of Cleveland is dramatically smarter than the citizen anywhere else relative to blockchain technology.”

And he may be right, but communicating what blockchain is remains a formidable challenge.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.