Toolbox for Economic Growth: Leveraging our intellectual assets

“In Cleveland’s heyday … proximity to water or rail mattered a lot. Today, proximity to a university campus matters a lot.”

Tim Ferguson of Forbes said that, not at a recent high-tech conference, but 15 years ago and in the context of manufacturing. What was true at the close of the last century is even more important in the opening decades of the present one.

There’s no question that today’s economy is a global knowledge- and technology-intensive one, as the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators suggest. Research discoveries that beget new technologies and further innovations through human capital are as critical to manufacturing today as electricity and petroleum were last century.

And just as 20th century manufacturers in Northeast Ohio benefited from ready access to shipping, highways and rail, their 21st century counterparts will benefit from the region’s abundance of intellectual assets.

Northeast Ohio is home to more than 30 universities and colleges. Yet few businesses, particularly among small- to medium-size enterprises, value these institutions beyond their talent-supply-chain benefits. Most seemingly ignore the innovation and research capacities. That is akin to our region drawing upon Lake Erie only as a source for potable water, and ignoring its vast potential for shipping, fishing and recreation.

Forging partnerships

Fortunately for all, universities and colleges are actively seeking to provide regional SMEs greater access to university-generated research and innovation.

In 2012, The University of Akron, Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University and Lorain County Community College joined with the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network to facilitate university support of SMEs.

That same year James Griffith, president and CEO of The Timken Co., and I promoted a greater linkage of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program with universities as sources of innovation, the mission of which is spelled out in the National Research Council’s book, “21st Century Manufacturing: The Role of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program.”

In addition, a collaboration of seven research universities that includes Akron, Case Western and Youngstown State University led to the establishment of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, now known as America Makes, which has garnered about $70 million in federal and corporate funding.

The Youngstown-based institute is the nation’s leading partnership in additive manufacturing and 3-D printing technology research, discovery, development and commercialization. America Makes is accelerating the transformation of American manufacturers as they collectively seek to lead the world in advanced manufacturing productivity.

More to come

Last year, Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, and I were appointed by President Barack Obama to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee “2.0.” With this, Northeast Ohio is again prominently involved in the ongoing development of new technological resources to support American manufacturing.

Earlier this month, The University of Akron and the United Steelworkers hosted an AMP 2.0 regional meeting in Akron that showcased our region’s advanced manufacturing activities, and added our region’s input into a national manufacturing policy initiative in development by the White House.

Today, more than ever, universities and colleges partner with manufacturers to identify areas where their assets and expertise can be accessed and utilized to develop and commercialize technology. Today, universities mean business!

Luis M. Proenza is president of The University of Akron. Luis serves on the Executive Committee of the Council on Competitiveness, the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy at the National Academies, as well as its Council of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable. More is available at

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