Trending TechBelt: Connecting the Dots

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Just how integral is the TechBelt Initiative to the future of the region? Consider this eye-opening statement from Barb Ewing, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator.

“It’s not likely that NAMII would have been here without the TechBelt Initiative.”

Ewing is referring to the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or America Makes, in downtown Youngstown.

“Without the partnership,” adds Ewing, “I think the proposal partners would have looked very differently and it’s not likely the institute itself would be located here.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, takes it a step further by saying that without the TechBelt Initiative, it’s unlikely President Obama would be pointing to Youngstown in national speeches, or that Siemens Corp. would have donated $440 million worth of computer software to Youngstown State University.

But for many the Tech Belt is still a vague concept – a borderless region that stretches from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with Youngstown the “buckle” of the belt as it’s described on the Youngstown State University website.

Although the Tech Belt isn’t specifically designated on the map, all you have to do is pinpoint where the most technologically advanced work in the region is being done. Then connect the dots.

To the west, Akron has been making waves in the biosciences and in polymers. To the north, Cleveland has become a hub for advances in health care. To the east, Pittsburgh is at the forefront of robotics. Warren is working on energy innovation. And Youngstown is leading the nation in additive manufacturing.

The TechBelt Initiative got its start in 2007 with the efforts of former U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-4 Pa., and the Mahoning Valley’s Ryan.

“We were hearing from venture capitalists on the East Coast,” recounts Ryan.

“Cleveland would go out and ask for money for biotechnology, for example, and then a week or two later Pittsburgh would go out and ask for money. And they started telling our people, ‘Do you know you’re only an hour-and-a-half away from each other, yet you all come out and try to compete for the same pot of money?’”

Ryan says coincidentally he had just returned from China and India, a trip that made him realize that Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown had to stop competing against each other and turn their attention to competing against the world.

Ryan says that’s when a light bulb lit up – needed was the creation of a mega-region. And that was the genesis of the Techbelt Initiative.

Ryan credits Ewing as the real driving force behind the initiative. She now serves as co-chairman, an unpaid position that complements her job as COO of the incubator.

“The TechBelt is a national model for statewide or regional collaboration between tech-based economic development groups,” Ewing explains.

Those groups encompass organizations, universities and industries.

The initiative has no staff per se or bylaws, but it does have another co-chairman, Dewitt Peart of the Allegheny Conference. The conference covers economic development for the 10 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania.

“We have a lot of similar interests in growing the economy and growing jobs,” says Peart. “If you look at the companies that do business across this region, many of them have operations in Pennsylvania and in eastern Ohio. And to a large extent they do business with each other. It only made sense to look at this more holistically and to say for the betterment of this entire region, we need to be working together.”

When you’re competing globally, Peart observes, state and city boundaries disappear.

Another partner in the initiative is Youngstown State University, which Ewing credits as instrumental in pushing forward and writing the NAMII proposal.

She says YSU has been able to develop important relationships with Case Western Reserve and Carnegie Mellon universities. Other partners include the University of Akron and Kent State University.

Economic development and organizational partners in the initiative are the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (Magnet) in Cleveland, Innovation Works in Pittsburgh and the Jumpstart Entrepreneurial Network of northeastern Ohio.

The partners themselves fluctuate with each bringing something different to the table as needed. The budget also fluctuates. Ewing estimates it will exceed $100,000 this year with funding coming from members’ dues and foundations.

Since the TechBelt Initiative has no working staff, Pittsburgh consultants 4th Economy is under contract to perform the day-to-day work of the TechBelt. That includes identifying the next big initiative to pursue and building bridges between the organizations that might become partners on a project.

“Whenever we see what might be an opportunity, we’ll start to gather the information on what assets we have across the region and to identify if we have a partner to champion it,” explains Jerry Paytas, vice president, 4th Economy, and TechBelt program manager.

“For it to be a TechBelt project, it has to be bigger than any one organization in any one state. So we have to have someone from Ohio and Pennsylvania, or Ohio and West Virginia or some combination.”

Paytas is working on developing a biomedical consortium that would center around biomaterials and biomedical devices.

“That effort is being championed by Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve [universities],” he says. “We also have Akron and Kent [State] participating, so we’re forming the partnership around what that would be.”

The goal is to bring more investment of federal and private-sector dollars to the region, which is particularly strong in life sciences, energy and manufacturing.

Collaboration is the key and that’s exactly what opened the door to landing NAMII.

As Ewing tells it, both the TechBelt Initiative and the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM) in Pennsylvania were working on proposals they hoped would secure the new additive manufacturing hub.

“Because the TechBelt had existing relationships with so many partners within the NCDMM footprint, we were able to bring these two initiatives together and work collaboratively and help make that happen,” Ewing says.

The collaboration, which included universities and industries from eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, won out over the likes of MIT and Georgia Tech by securing $40 million from its partners to attract the $30 million contract from the federal government for the first pilot hub in the nation in downtown Youngstown.

“NAMII is definitely our big project win,” says Ewing. “Sometimes its hard to have such a major win because everything after that seems dwarfed by that event. So you always have to take a step back and say, ‘What else are we doing?’ ”

The Techbelt Initiative has extensive talent from which to draw, Ewing says. There are some 40 high-tech portfolio companies in the Youngstown Business Incubator. There’s the incubator’s counterpart in Warren, the TechBelt Energy Innovation Center, which supports advanced energy startups. The Catacell Corp. in Ravenna is working on advanced fuel cell components and the Cleveland Clinic is very active in research and development in the biosciences.

Peart says it’s important the public understand  that this type of collaboration is unique. The ultimate goal, he says, is to create more investment and more jobs that cause the “rust” to fall by the belt’s wayside, leaving in place the new Techbelt.

Seven years since his light bulb lit up, Ryan remains excited.

“You look at what Turning Tech is doing, what NAMII’s doing, Siemens, Boeing and Lockheed Martin,” he says, excitement in his voice. “Big global players now want to be in Youngstown. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, the 4th Economy’s Paytas says the best-case scenario would be for the TechBelt to be recognized as a global leader not only in additive manufacturing, but in three to five other key technologies as well.

“We proved the model that when we find the right opportunity and we assemble all the resources and assets we have in the region, we can compete with anybody in the country,” he says.

It’s just a matter of connecting the dots.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in The Business Journal's February edition.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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