When he moved to Cleveland five years ago to take care of his elderly mother, Tom Lix did not suspect that he would make Northeast Ohio his family’s new home. A few years later, he is Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at Lake Erie College, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Lake Erie College, and founder and CEO of Cleveland Whiskey LLC, a start-up distillery with advanced, patent-pending technology that expects to release its first products very soon. Every semester he brings real-life lessons from the entrepreneurship world to his classroom, where LEC students are benefitting from his extensive experience in business.
Tom Lix received his a education at Penn State University and the Boston University School of Management, and he has been involved with a variety of business opportunities since 1982, many of them in the capacity of founder, president and chief operating officer. Between 1995 and 2004 he served as president for Public Interactive, Inc., the "leading integrated application service provider (ASP) of on-line collaborative tools, community engagement technologies, content syndication services and member and audience relationship management systems for the public broadcasting industry,” per his resume on the professional social network LinkedIn. Public Interactive is currently a wholly owned not-for-profit subsidiary of National Public Radio (NPR).
A Central New Jersey native, Lix has lived in Denver, Seattle and Boston, but in 2005 he moved to the Cleveland area to take care of his ill mother who is originally from Northeast Ohio, despite his plans to go back to Seattle, Wash. and open his own distillery. "We never really envisioned ourselves in Cleveland,” Lix says of himself and his wife, "but found that it really was a remarkable city.” He says Cleveland reminds him of Boston 30-40 years ago. "[It] has these great industrial buildings, an undeveloped waterfront which Boston had about 40 years ago, incredible restaurants, and theater and arts that you would expect in a city much larger than Cleveland.” Since his relocation, Lix has also convinced his son and sister-in-law to move to the Cleveland area as well.
His interest in the city is reflected in many of the projects Lix has immersed himself in since coming to the area. He is currently Vice President of the Cleveland Waterfront Development Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that works with the city and the state on the development plans for the lakefront area in Downtown Cleveland. Lix describes it as a more of a community grassroots organization that is there to make sure that any new projects are completed responsibly and with consideration for the local community. "There are many projects on the table,” he says. "The objective is to make things happen.”
Lix fulfilled a business dream of his after moving to Cleveland as well. "We had planned to open a distillery in the state of Washington,” he says of the time right before he came to the area, "that was going to be my new adventure. When we came to Ohio we found out that this is a great place for entrepreneurship for a lot of different reasons. I started looking at how I can do it here.” After utilizing a number of small business opportunities, such as Jump Start, and a lot of local support, Lix opened Cleveland Whiskey LLC. "We are ready to release our first product,” he says proudly, "just waiting on the labels.”
What makes Cleveland Whiskey a different sort of distillery is the unique patent-pending technology. "We have an aging technology that accelerates the aging of whiskey,” Lix says. With a growing market for whiskey, since the spirit is increasingly popular in countries such as Russia and China where it was not traditionally sought after before, there is a sort of an international whiskey shortage due to the fact that producers have hard time meeting the higher-than-usual demand. "Gin doesn’t need aging, vodka doesn’t need aging,” Lix explains, but "whiskey takes time to age.” In other words, with the new technology that shortens the time it takes to produce quality whiskey, Cleveland Whiskey is in a good place for a successful operation.
The distilling company is only one of the examples of valuable real-world experience that Lix is bringing to the classroom and all of his students. He has been involved in entrepreneurship for as long as he can remember. "My parents said I had businesses when I was four years old,” he says, and things haven’t changed much since then. Which is what makes him an excellent example for the young men and women who are a part of the LEC Entrepreneurship program.
"There is a lot of controversy in entrepreneurship whether you are born an entrepreneur or whether you are trained to be one,” Lix says. "I think it’s a combination of both.” He does not see himself so much as a teacher, but rather as a coach. While he stumbled into teaching after his move to the Cleveland area, when he submitted a very untraditional resume for a position at the LEC Center for Entrepreneurship, he has since found great enjoyment in academia. "This is my fifth year [at LEC],” he says. "I like it a lot. It’s new faces all the time, new ideas, lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm.”
He takes great pride in the students he has taught, and some of them continue their relationship with him on the professional level—two former students currently work for him at Cleveland Whiskey. One, an LEC chemistry major, received his master’s degree in chemistry and works at the Cleveland Whiskey store, and the other, an equine studies student who graduated last year, works there part-time while attending law school.His favorite thing about teaching at LEC? "When I see a student who has an idea and has a passion for that idea, and I know that they are really into it,” he says. Then he helps them take that idea and make is as good as it can be. Recently Lix had the chance to show off some of his students during the visit of filmmaker Brian Weildling. At the end of the talk, Lix asked two of his students to stand up and tell the guest speaker of their entrepreneurial ideas. "They both stood up, and explained [their ideas], explained [them] with passion, and he was really impressed. I was really proud.”