Bernie Moreno, luxury-car dealer extraordinaire, aims to make Cleveland the hub of a relatively new, groundbreaking technology — and he wants to move quickly.
The president of Cleveland-based Bernie Moreno Cos. is transfixed on blockchain, which uses cryptography to connect electronic records and transactions and keep them secure from hacking. Blockchain can help business and government operate more safely and efficiently.
During the past several months, Moreno has assembled business, civic, philanthropic, educational and nonprofit leaders to transform Cleveland into the Silicon Valley of blockchain. He hopes to establish a blockchain center, perhaps downtown, where tech companies would devise blockchain solutions for industry and government.
Moreno’s vision includes institutions of higher education, like Case Western Reserve and Cleveland State universities, that would teach blockchain. His goal is to graduate 1,000 blockchain coders in 2019 and create a blockchain research institute at CWRU.
Moreno spoke about his campaign, dubbed BlockLand, to about 250 guests Aug. 16 at the Global Center for Health Innovation downtown. The presentation, part of Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Middle Market Forum series, was moderated by Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joe Roman.
The blockchain campaign includes a conference scheduled for Dec. 1-4 at Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland. Moreno said it will be the first conference where experts will consider ways to apply blockchain to business and government. Speakers at the conference will include Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, and Joseph Lubin, co-founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum.
Moreno is moving fast because he’s convinced technologies like blockchain will either make or break Cleveland.
“All companies are technology companies,” Moreno says. “So the city that is not in the tech business is a city that is not going to survive.”
The Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto is assisting Moreno’s Cleveland team. BRI is offering any Cleveland company free access to its data, which normally would cost more than $100,000.
“There’s never been an opportunity like this one, to use technology to raise the standard of living, to rewrite the economic power grid and deal with real issues like poverty elimination and economic growth,” says Hilary Carter, BRI’s managing director, who appeared at Moreno’s presentation.
Light bulbs activated
Moreno might seem an unlikely figure to lead a blockchain revolution. But he is a community leader. He has served on the boards of CSU, the Cleveland Foundation, Destination Cleveland, Cuyahoga Community College and GCP.
His dive into blockchain originated two to three years ago, when he was talking with his son about transitioning the family car business into a new type of company. Moreno’s son suggested investing in bitcoin, which uses blockchain.
However, Moreno’s friend and financial consultant, Shane Bigelow, at Bernstein Global Wealth Management in Cleveland, counseled Moreno to expand his business concept to blockchain.
So Moreno aspired to start a blockchain company in Cleveland, but he didn’t believe the city was fertile ground for a tech business, at least, not yet. He asked himself what Cleveland needed to become relevant in the tech world.
Moreno flew to New York City for Consensus 2018, a blockchain industry conference, where he met representatives from BRI, the world’s leading blockchain research organization. He was so impressed with BRI that he invited officials from CWRU, CSU, Tri-C, the Cleveland Foundation and Destination Cleveland to accompany him to BRI in Toronto.
“When we met with the people from BRI, you looked around the room and saw light bulbs come on,” Moreno says. “Wow. We have this opportunity. These kinds of transformative technologies don’t happen but every 15 to 20 years.”
Moreno and friends had caught blockchain fever. They formed 10 committees to study how to make Cleveland a blockchain capital, and their work continues. The committees are:
Thought leadership, co-chairs David Gilbert, president/CEO of Destination Cleveland; Dan Walsh, chief executive of Citymark Capital in Cleveland; and Steven Santamaria, CEO of Folio Photonics Inc. The committee is looking at how blockchain can solve business and government problems. Stemming from the committee is Block Busters, 20 blockchain-savvy people promoting and discussing the technology in neighborhoods.
Political environment, co-chairs Roman of GCP and Dr. Akram Boutros, president/CEO of The MetroHealth System. The committee is educating policy-makers about the new technology and trying to convince governments at all levels to adopt blockchain.
Legal system, co-chairs Lee Fisher, dean of CSU’s Cleveland Marshall College of Law, and Jessica Berg, dean of CWRU’s School of Law. The committee is examining the legal implications of technology, such as online smart contracts, that uses blockchain. Moreno says Ohio Sen. Matt Dolan, R-24, has introduced a bill that would build a legal framework for business transactions involving blockchain.
Philanthropy, co-chairs Ronn Richard, president/CEO of Cleveland Foundation, and Don Graves Jr., senior director of corporate community initiatives at KeyBank. The committee wants to ensure that vulnerable populations benefit from blockchain, which can help provide social services more efficiently.
Research and renovation, co-chairs Suzanne Rivera, vice president for research, office research and technology management at CWRU’s School of Medicine, and Juergen Weinhofer, vice president of common architecture and technology at Rockwell Automation. This committee is working toward establishing a blockchain research center at CWRU, and involving surrounding schools, such as Kent State University.
Place, co-chairs Jon Pinney, managing partner of Cleveland’s Kohrman Jackson Krantz law firm, and Teresa Metcalf Beasley, partner at Cleveland law firm Calfee, Halter and Griswold LLP. The committee is seeking a location for the proposed City Block, which would house several blockchain companies. Moreno said it would measure about 300,000 square feet and include a separate wing, Genesis, where students in kindergarten through college would learn blockchain.
Next generation, co-chairs Aaron Slodov, local tech entrepreneur, and Chantel Moody, director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play Cleveland. Moreno says about half the 30-somethings now living in Silicone Valley plan to move within two years. “We have a great quality of life in Cleveland,” Moreno says. “We have to give those people a reason to come here.”
Entrepreneurial environment, co-chairs Ray Leach, founding CEO of JumpStart Inc., and Elad Granot, dean of Ashland University’s Dauch College of Business and Economics. Moreno says Tel Aviv is home to several blockchain startups, but they can’t grow due to the limited market. This committee will work on bringing those startups to Cleveland.
Talent development and retention, co-chairs Amy Brady, chief information officer at KeyBank, and Brenda Kirk, executive vice president and chief product and strategy officer at Hyland Software Inc. This committee will encourage local colleges and universities to create blockchain certificate programs, then work on keeping program graduates in Cleveland.
Business applications, co-chairs Steven McHale and Charlie Lougheed, co-founders of the Unify Project. The committee is charged with creating blockchain business applications, so that when techies consider Cleveland, they see activity already happening here.
Join the BlockLand Facebook page to learn more about blockchain and receive free access to BRI data.