(Jan. 20, 2003) — Ohio's government made a good decision two years ago when it kicked in money to help small, new plastics companies commercialize their promising technology. It would be a shame if the program lapses and the effort isn't followed up.
The group, Ohio Polymer Enterprise Development Inc., launched in late 2001 with $1.5 million in state funding.
The money doesn't support state investment in companies. Rather, OPED provides seed money for consultants and works to line up venture capitalists interested in polymers. It's trying to create networks for technology entrepreneurs, which companies say are important to keeping a healthy cluster of new polymer related development.
But the program's future is in some doubt. The money runs out at the end of the year, and a tight budget picture in Columbus will make it difficult to get more funding.
State officials have been supportive of OPED, they say they are happy with it, and they express that they want it to continue. But it's not clear how.
One plan calls for OPED to become the commercialization wing of an advanced materials research center that the University of Akron and other institutions would like to build.
That seems like a good idea, but it's not a given that state money will come through for that. There are many groups and industries throughout Ohio vying for limited state money to build their own such research centers, called Wright Centers of Innovation.
A state official suggested that if government money goes to support building a new center, OPED could be supported by other pots of money.
Others have suggested OPED could affiliate more closely with an existing institution, like the University of Akron. But OPED officials still are struggling with what shape the group will take when the money runs out.
It's clear a strong OPED would help Ohio.
The plastics industry faces a particularly intense period of international competition and it needs new materials and new applications to compete in world markets. Using technology to spearhead new applications would help, and that's where OPED comes in.
Many of the companies it works with are not served by traditional economic development agencies, and OPED seems like a good, low-cost way to jump-start some of that research and bring some of it to Ohio.
Ohio's polymer industry has not been the most robust in the past few years. Ohio has the second-largest processing industry in the United States, but it had the slowest plastics economic growth rate of any of the 10 largest processing states between 1996 and 2001.
We know state money is tight, and policymakers have a lot of priorities to weigh. The state also supports other polymer-related activities, like PolymerOhio. Everyone has good intentions.
But an effort like OPED should be given more than two years to see if it can work. The state, industry and academic community should see that OPED has some additional life, and the state strongly should consider additional funding, if that turns out to be needed. It could prove to be a good model nationwide.