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Mission Possible: Cleveland inventors expand from consumer design to medical innovation

Nottingham Spirk is marking 50 years by forging a new path in medical technology.

CLEVELAND — John Nottingham and John Spirk met 55 years ago while studying at Cleveland's Institute of Art.

"We both got job offers after we graduated, with our industrial design degrees. And that would have taken us out of Cleveland," John Nottingham recalled. 

Instead, they carved out space in an old garage, situated not far from the campus of Case Western Reserve University, where they started their company known as Nottingham Spirk today. 

Today, the garage has been replaced by a former Christian Science Church, overlooking neighborhoods in Little Italy and University Circle.

A visitor's tour showcases hallways lined with familiar products invented by the company, such as the Crest SpinBrush, Swiffer SweepVac, Little Tikes Toys and the patented twist and pour paint can, just to name a few.

Credit: Nottingham Spirk
The company moved into a former Christian Science Church. The architecture helps spark inspiration and creativity.

Another hallway shows off over a thousand patents, with more on the way. Some of what happens at Nottingham Spirk is guarded in secrecy, and for good reason. The innovation company is always on the path to create "the next big thing."

"We are doing first to world, the first to ever be designed pro-types that prove feasibility," said Jason Ertel, Vice President of Engineering at Nottingham Spirk. 

An invention is only a hit if people embrace it. For Amanda Beacher, getting the public's feedback is part of the job. 

"We want to get it into their hands. Does it feel right? Does it work the way they expect it to? Does it exceed expectations?" said Beacher who is Director of Insights at the company. 

"Brand builder" is also part of the company's resume, creating the Duck Tape name and logo, the logo for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and packaging design for Purell hand sanitizer. 

Perhaps the most eye-catching part of the tour, is the office space in a 1930's church. 

"The church architecture is designed for inspiration, so we think it is a natural correlation with being an innovation company because we want to be inspired to think beyond ourselves," Nottingham said. 

He is also the first to say it's not the building or tech, that is behind the first autonomous golf caddie, but the people. A sentiment echoed by John Spirk. 

"It is like a family. I mean you start with two and you grow and grow and grow to the size of the organization we have today," which now stands at about 75. 

"This is a high performing environment. So you have to be able to have the agility that we have, and to be small, but mighty. You need to bring a lot each and every day," said Lilian Cindric, the company's Chief Operating Officer. 

Last year marked the opening of the Ernst & Young Nottingham Spirk Innovation Hub. 

It is a 60,000-square-foot facility that "helps businesses tap into the unlimited potential of new technologies as well as digital, automation and ecosystem platforms to create highly curated experiences," according to a 2021 press release about the opening. 

The company has expanded from consumer to medical devices, like the first "point of care" treatment for concussions, in a team project with TecTraum. 

The device goes over the head and neck of a patient to reduce "intra-brain" temperature, without lowering their core temperature.  It has just completed a round of clinical trials. 

"Every new product is like a new lesson in something. You have to learn about a new technology or maybe a new category of manufacturing and things like that. So, you are constantly learning which I always loved," said Sloan Zimmerman, Senior Biomedical Engineer for Nottingham Spirk. 

After 50 years in business, Nottingham Spirk has quite the legacy, but it's still being written. After all, there are still problems to solve. 

 "Every day is a new opportunity; a new challenge and we have to make the most of those," said John Spirk. 

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