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This man has a puzzle CEOs will struggle to solve

It looks like a Rubik’s Cube. It moves like a Rubik’s Cube.

But good luck solving the Magic Cube without cheating. A lot.

“I invented the thing and I know the solutions — I have trouble doing it,” says Jonathan Kinlay. “It could take me all day if I just picked one up.”

The Magic Cube, which has about 3,000 times as many combinations as a standard Rubik’s Cube, is made by Chicago’s Innovation Factory. The design and 3-D prototyping firm is challenging 100 American math whizzes — including Citadel CEO Ken Griffin and University of Chicago math department head Shmuel Weinberger — to complete a puzzle that could take your average math genius a month.

Kinlay, founder of hedge fund Systematic Strategies and CEO of Innovation Factory, says he’s been planning the cube for years. The trickiest part? To solve it, the player needs to know historically significant mathematical sequences.

“Someone who’s a professional mathematician will probably guess some of the sequences fairly quickly,” Kinlay says. “But someone who doesn’t have that background will have to sort of do a bit of research and dig into it and try and guess what they could be and what their importance is.”

The brain-sharpening business is booming, says Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder of SharpBrains, a market research firm specializing in applications of brain science.

Sales of brain fitness applications grew from $200 million in 2005 to $1 billion last year — and Fernandez predicts a $6 billion industry by 2020. That figure comprises interactive devices, and not isolated products like the Magic Cube, but Fernandez says the figures show a heightened interest in the market.

“There’s a general perspective that there are more and more people understanding that we have to exercise our brains to stay healthier,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, designing a nearly impossible puzzle has its difficulties. To get it right, Innovation Factory went through dozens of iterations. A solid aluminium model posed particular challenges.

“It’s got a number of parts that have to fit together, the mechanism has to be strong enough to support rotation — it’s different from a regular Rubik’s Cube made from plastic,” Kinlay says. “It can easily break apart, but at the same time it has to glide smoothly. There are quite a number of elements to it.”

Once the math-whiz competition has ended — likely by the end of the year, Kinlay says — the firm will sell Magic Cubes on its website, along with a book that discusses the history of the sequences chosen and solution software. Kinlay expects to sell plastic cubes for $20, wood versions for $75 and aluminum Magic Cubes for $250.

“Some people will probably program it up to a computer program and solve it that way,” Kinlay says. “Other people are going to use their talents as Rubik’s Cube puzzle solvers to try and solve it.”

Scott Brown can vouch for the latter. The chief merchant at Chicago-based Marbles stores, which specialize in puzzles and brain games, says Magic Cube could see particular success with cryptologists. He cited Isis, a line of products carried in his stores that take months to solve and cost around $250 each. The Isis puzzle is the No. 2 seller by revenue at Marbles.

He says the Magic Cube has a shot at success with advanced “cubers.”

“There’s a huge community of cubers out there that are always looking for something new or different,” Brown says. “There’s a group of people that will love that challenge. There’s a ton more that will hate it, and that’s OK.”

Photo of Jonathan Kinlay by Heath Sharp