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Excitement about cost of living and accessibility drawing tech workers from the coasts to Cleveland

File image of rowers on the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland.
Posted at 1:42 PM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 18:15:11-05

CLEVELAND — In the same way the manufacturing industry built up Cleveland in the early part of the 20th Century, the tech industry could have a similar impact in the next few years if current trends continue, according to tech workers who have already made their move to the Great Lakes region.

As a young man in Germany, Oskar Bruening knew his calling was to work for a technology company.

“I came to the U.S. because this is where tech is,” said Bruening.

So he moved to San Francisco, where software engineers are seemingly around every corner. After working for other companies, Bruening helped start Peek.com, connecting people to actives in other cities or in their own.

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"They really think about, 'How can we help, what is the business opportunity here," said Bruening about Clevelanders being more focused on starting businesses to solve current problems in tech. "Maybe [a business plan] isn't initially a success, but what is my plan to success."

The pandemic kept him out of his San Francisco office, allowing Bruening to move to Northeast Ohio.

“I think the quality of life is very different here,” said Bruening. “It’s much better."

The cost of living is dramatically lower, Bruening says the people are nicer, and since the pandemic made remote work more common, living near your co-workers is no longer a requirement. No longer, Bruening says, does become absolutely necessary for a city like Cleveland need to chase a large corporation during its search for a new headquarters.

"That means for us, we can hire anywhere," said Bruening. "But it also means for people living here, they can be hired anywhere."

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The Euclid Corridor is often the focus of districts meant to revitalize nearby communities. It runs from Public Square, through Playhouse Square, MidTown Cleveland, near Hough, and into University Circle.

Brent Sanders had a similar experience in Chicago, where he help found Formulated Automation but still never saw his business partners despite the fact that they lived in the same city.

“We worked on a ton of projects together and we were never seeing each other from a safety perspective and it wasn’t necessary,” said Sanders.

So he and his family moved to the west side during the pandemic, closer to family and friends.

They aren’t alone.

U-Haul says Ohio has been in the top ten states that self-movers are coming to for the last two years and Sanders say he expects more of the tech industry to follow.

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Sanders moved to greater Cleveland from Chicago during the pandemic because it made him realize he didn't need to be near his business partners to still work well together.

“Really, I think it’s just making it known that Cleveland’s a cool place to be,” said Sanders, despite moving to greater Cleveland during a pandemic.

Both men say they found a population of other tech workers they, frankly, didn’t think would be in the Midwest. That offers a population to hire from and complements the major universities and colleges that are already in Northeast Ohio that graduate students with the entry level skills companies like Peek.com and Formulated Automation need.

But, but companies came to Northeast Ohio as well-established businesses.

Parents In Motion is a start-up tech company that launched in the same community four years ago, and co-founders Chanel Williams and Charisma Curry say they often had it a lot harder.

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"If you're coming from Silicon Valley, you already had that support, you already passed a lot of early-stage hurdles that people are stagnant in Cleveland about," said Williams.

“When you’re actually here in creation, that’s completely different,” said Williams.

Parents In Motion started as a ride-share company for families with school-aged students who struggled to get to and from school and extra-curricular activities. They’ve since pivoted to adjust to the COVID pandemic, but they say without the established reputation of a larger, higher-revenue company, they struggled to raise money and momentum.

“Sometimes, [investors] won’t even look at you because you don’t have this much money generated, so [it’s like] ‘what can we do with you,” said Williams.

Parents In Motion eventually was accepted into start-up accelerator gBETA. Now, they’re hopeful that Cleveland can become the tech hub it wants to be while also becoming more inclusive.

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Curry says launching a start-up in Cleveland can be especially challenging because it can be hard to get access to the early resources available on the coasts.

“We are an evolving place,” said Curry. “It just takes slower than some of the bigger cities.”

Sanders says he sees Cleveland like an Austin, Texas, which recently attracted established brands like Tesla, Oracle, and Dropbox.

The recently-announced Cleveland Innovation District could help, bringing together Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, JobsOhio, InnovateOhio, and Ohio Development Services Agency, to invest $565 million in making Cleveland a go-to location for medical research and breakthroughs.

But Sanders says other cities have a decades-long of a head start on Cleveland only because they’ve experience early start-up success that Cleveland hasn’t.

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A new innovation district in Cleveland is intended to spark medical research and breakthroughs in Cleveland.

"It's not just tech, it's also entrepreneurship in general," said Bruening, suggesting what Cleveland has to do better to inspire more start-up success. "Making people feel comfortable to start companies."

“You have these generations where you’ve had exits, you’ve had liquidity events, and then now you have all these agent investors and you have this hotbed,” said Sanders.

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