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Universities Partner to Foster IoT Development in Cleveland

With the Internet of Things Collaborative, Case Western Reserve and Cleveland State universities work together to use their resources to drive innovation in the region.

In this installment of the Innovation of the Month series (read last month’s story here), we explore the Case Western Reserve University–Cleveland State University Internet of Things Collaborative, a new initiative in the Cleveland area, which is being supported by the Cleveland Foundation to foster the region’s research and development of these technologies.

MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine sat down with members of Case Western Reserve University (Dr. Suzanne Rivera, vice president for research, and Dr. Kenneth Loparo, academic director of the Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems); Cleveland State University (Dr. Jerzy Sawicki, vice president for research, and Dr. Nigamanth Sridhar, academic director of the Center for IoT Innovation); and the Cleveland Foundation (Shilpa Kedar, program director, economic development, and Leon Wilson, chief of digital innovation and CIO) to learn more.

Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the CWRU-CSU Internet of Things (IoT) Collaborative is? Who is involved in the effort?

Jerzy Sawicki (CSU): The IoT Collaborative (IoTC) is focused on leveraging and building the assets of Cleveland’s two universities — CWRU and CSU — to help drive vision and focus for the region as we prepare for the next technological revolution. It is not viewed as a traditional academic “center,” but rather a collaborative that is bringing focus and resources to the universities for the good of the city and region. In January 2018, the Cleveland Foundation awarded the IoTC $1.75 million for its first year to begin building up the organizational capabilities and assets of the effort. These funds will support the initial hiring of faculty, staff and other infrastructure needed to operate as a collective and drive project ideas, build partnerships, and show the region what it might mean to be an IoT city and region. This investment is the first of a multiyear effort to grow the IoTC.

Suzanne Rivera (CWRU): Supporting partners include the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the Cleveland Foundation, numerous economic development organizations in the region, and both small and large companies. Because of our industry base and geographic location, the IoTC is targeting the Industrial Internet of Things, a focus that looks at the larger physical digital connection to infrastructure as it can be broadly defined: manufacturing infrastructure, urban infrastructure, medical infrastructure and energy infrastructure.

Moreover, we are structuring our effort to not only cross the public-private sector lines, but also the disciplinary lines to allow us to truly be a “TechPlus” effort. This means that in addition to the traditional engineering and computer science disciplines on our campuses, we are involving the business, legal, social sciences, humanities, ethics, education and health-care fields. The Industrial Internet of Things will transform the way we work, the way we interact, the way we learn, and all fields must come together to prepare appropriately.

Levine: Can you describe the history and how this became a priority for those involved?

Shilpa Kedar (Cleveland Foundation): In October 2015, the Cleveland Foundation hired Leon Wilson as its first chief technology and information officer to develop a digital strategy that would guide the investment and grant-making decisions of the country’s second-largest community foundation. This strategy, rolled out in 2017, is called the Digital Excellence Initiative and is focused on five pillars:

  • Creating a more connected community
  • Supporting digital skills development
  • Improving digital civic engagement
  • Elevating regional digital leadership
  • Encouraging technology innovation for social good
Leon Wilson (Cleveland Foundation): The CWRU/CSU Collaboration was one of the first items supported under this initiative, with a $200,000 planning grant to the team to develop the framework for a regionwide IoT activity (this paved the way to the current $1.75 million investment).

Kenneth Loparo (CWRU): In 2015, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at CWRU, under advisement from alumni who sit on our Silicon Valley Think Tank and Boston Think Tank, developed a strategic plan that would tie together the various research thrusts of the department with an application for IoT. This plan included required investments in new faculty hires, new laboratories and new curricula. It was given its first shot in the arm in 2016 with a $1.5 million investment by Bob Herbold, alum and former chief operating officer of Microsoft, and the effort became officially known as the Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems (ISSACS). Since that time, the effort has expanded into other disciplines not only within engineering, but also across the campus and into the community. ISSACS is CWRU’s organizational link to the IoT Collaborative.

Nigamanth Sridhar (CSU): Cleveland State University is an urban public university that is committed to a philosophy of engaging our students inside the classroom, throughout the community and around the globe. CSU’s involvement in the IoT Collaborative was sparked by two efforts: a CSforAll program led by faculty in engineering and teacher education in partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District; and the establishment of the Center for Cybersecurity and Privacy Protection through our school of law. As we introduced the IoT Collaborative concept across campus, we have developed an organizing structure called the Center for IoT Innovation (CITI). CITI is CSU’s organizational link to the IoT Collaborative.

Rivera: There are various layers of local government involved in this effort and several examples of activities. Within the city of Cleveland, we are in the midst of developing a smart solution to issues associated with the water department’s underground pipes. With the Cuyahoga County government, various departments and groups are working with a CSU/CWRU highly interdisciplinary faculty team (engineering, urban studies and law) to consider the first steps in managing the opioid crisis using a range of technology. With a local inner-ring suburb, Lakewood, the team is using city vehicles for a groundwater sensing project.


Local government officials and IoT Collaborative researchers on a field trip with the local water department to discuss IoT technologies.


Local government officials and IoT Collaborative researchers on a field trip with the local water department to discuss IoT technologies. Courtesy of Nick Barendt, CWRU

Sawicki: The incentive behind our industry partners to engage with the IoTC is preparedness — what does IoT mean to our business models? If we are a small company, how do we scale technology? Multiple industry partners are engaged in either projects and/or discussions about how to move forward. A few examples: Eaton Corporation and Intwine Connect are working with the IoT Collaborative on a project focused on energy management with IoT-enabled systems. We also have a group of 10 to 12 small manufacturers working to figure out how to prepare for the industrial IoT and what that means to their community from an educational/workforce development standpoint. 

Levine: Can you describe what this project is focusing on and what motivated your respective institutions to address this particular opportunity?

Rivera: In Northeast Ohio, we see alignment around connected devices and big data as a common interest across academics, industry, health care, public-sector operations and services to citizens. We also see a strong research base that can be cultivated to establish Cleveland as a leader in IoT and data analytics. Specific projects that are coming forward include a range of disciplines, from those working to just organize and connect data streams (those first steps toward realizing the Internet of Things) to others testing specific IoT ideas.


  • Establishing a point-of-care sickle cell disease and malaria screening platform
  • Virtual advocate: Giving voice to the unheard
  • Smart fire-fighting in urban and suburban environments
  • User-driven elder care technologies within a nursing home facility
  • Military-based clinical theater assistant
  • The HATCH Study: Halt Asthma Exacerbations Through Connected Health Care

  • Using interactive media and an augmented reality app to increase access to community spaces for children with mobility and sensory impairments
  • Development of a mobile app/website for matching drug addiction treatment services
  • Development of a Web-based system for supporting home-based care and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorder
  • Cyber-physical security in an IoT-enabled microgrid
  • Security and privacy of IoT devices 
  • A multimodal sensing platform for behavior and emotion monitoring
  • Smart cities and data bricolage: How the Internet of Things and crowdsourcing can be leveraged to improve city management 
Levine: How will the initiative organize the IoT ecosystem?

Sawicki: From a basic standpoint, we are using as the front door (currently it is only a landing page, but being populated with content). We intentionally are not building a separate organization/nonprofit between the universities, but rather integrating and leveraging existing assets (ISSACS at CWRU, CITI at CSU), developing procedures and protocols for interacting seamlessly. With the $1.75 million award from the Cleveland Foundation, we are hiring staff who will interface with industry and the public sector, as well as positions within each university that will reach across the institutions. These individuals are building up advisory groups that are organized around industry, economic development/startup support community, local government and academic partners (community colleges, liberal arts colleges, etc.). These individuals are pulling together public-private teams around topics such as health care, manufacturing and energy with the intention of responding to grant proposals or building curriculum or hosting community events. We have hosted various community gatherings and will continue this year to build connections between and among all of our partners, including special sessions to engage local citizens.

For the external community, they will be able to enter the collaborative “front door” and be able to access a wide variety of disciplines and talent associated with both universities. Whether that is students who are developing IoT-related companies or faculty performing research in IoT-related ethics or research labs to test out ideas, they don’t have to worry about engaging two separate institutions, but tapping the wealth and resources of the collective.

Levine: How will the tools developed in this project impact planning and the built environment? What does it mean for Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and the region?

Rivera: There will not be one set of tools developed, but multiple sets. We can imagine tools and devices from the simple and routine, such as finding open parking spaces and knowing which garbage cans to empty; to the convenient, such as improving movement using smart and open transportation systems, smart lighting, spatial recognition to inform users of events, entertainment, and educational opportunities; to the complex, such as better informing city operations of infrastructure needs, lead in pipes, algae on lakes, point-in-time pollution, safety, crime, and connecting personal data to readily available public and private services. 

Levine: What are the next steps for the initiative? 

Sawicki: Our next step is to continue building up the infrastructure of IoTC so that we can serve the needs of the region and city. This includes developing a highly visible demonstration project that touches industry, government and citizens to show the possibilities of IoT. It also includes a faculty hiring initiative that will continue to bring research talent to the region, talent with an interest in a “tech-plus” approach as well as a translational approach to realizing IoT. It includes hosting or participating in events that bring the city and region together, such as Data Days on April 5-6 and Tech Week April 16-20. Finally, it includes efforts to tie all activities to the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has developed in Cleveland, helping students and faculty to move their IoT knowledge into partnering companies or starting their own.

Rivera: We are building a movement in Cleveland. While our anchor academic institutions are driving the movement, it is an all-in effort that engages all of our region.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics, and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 35 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development and deployment of projects that offer technologically and analytically based solutions to challenges facing urban areas, including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork

Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.