Editor's Note: This series takes a close-up look at the SBA's economic "clusters" designed to aid regional businesses.
It may seem surprising that a new technology called flexible electronics has a major hub of activity in Ohio, but the Buckeye State is actually a logical place given its role in the development of other electronics and advanced materials.
"The modern liquid crystal displays that you see today had their beginnings right here in Ohio," says Byron Clayton, a vice president for the Ohio economic development organization NorTech and the head of its flexible electronics industry cluster. "We have a legacy." That legacy can be attributed partly to research institutions in the state, including the Liquid Crystal Institute that is part of Kent State University, the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University.
The legacy is poised to grow, thanks in part to the Small Business Administration's decision to invest $1.2 million in 2010 and 2011 -- $600,000 each year -- to support entrepreneurial involvement in the Flex Matters Northeast Ohio Technology Coalition. The coalition is a cluster of more than 50 businesses, academic institutions and other organizations focusing on the state's flexible electronics industry.
Flexible electronics are components that can be bent, folded and stretched. The electronic pieces are either printed onto flexible materials such as plastic or plastic coated paper or deposited on the surface with a very thin coating. Potential applications for flexible electronic technology include phones that have curved display surfaces or clothing with electronics printed on them to monitor the vital signs of athletes or members of the military.
Flexible electronics technology is already being used in such products as flexible, super-thin and durable LCD display screens, which can be written on with either a stylus or finger and then erased with the touch of a button. There is also a pill that contains a sensor to measure temperature, pressures and pH levels inside the body, as well as an eco-friendly printed battery that can be used in electronic greeting cards and interactive packaging and then thrown away safely.
As part of its regional clusters pilot program, the SBA invested in a total of 10 different groups across the country. Some like Flex Matters received an additional $385,000 in 2012, with the potential for another four years of funding. With the first $1.2 million, Flex Matters created about 125 jobs and attracted investments of about $25 million for its member businesses, Clayton says.
The cluster, whose primary goal is to get regional industry participants to work together, used some of the SBA investment to hold quarterly meetings, participate in shows that present the latest flexible electronics innovations, and sponsor regional technology conferences. But the majority of the SBA funding has helped entrepreneurs, many of whom are researchers, learn about business development strategies through one-on-one mentoring and consulting.
Nearly two-thirds of the members of the Flex Matters cluster are small businesses. One of the small companies the cluster has helped is Kent, Ohio-based startup AlphaMicron, which created a flexible film that when put on a visor can instantly change from light to dark with the press of a button. If a motorcycle rider suddenly drives into bright sun, he or she can instantly change the reflection of the visor without having to change helmets.
With the SBA funding, the Flex Matters cluster was able to work with AlphaMicron one-on-one. It helped the company finish a prototype of the visor to take to a motorcycle show in Italy. Because of the show, AlphaMicron now has 10 helmet manufacturers interested in selling and distributing its product, Clayton says.
The cluster also helped students at Case Western Reserve with their idea for a flexible electronic price label that lets stores use a software program to change prices with the mere press of a button. The labels are made of a material that can use energy from fluorescent lights to automatically change the price displayed on them.
Because of the cluster, the students ended up connecting with a company that helped them make prototypes of their invention. "This is the whole idea: You get people together, you look for that win-win and you put them together," Clayton says. "Here were some guys that did not have the resources to get to market, and the first step is to get that prototype built."