The Times West Virginian

December 29, 2013

TechConnect program aims to help state’s manufacturers

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — TechConnect West Virginia is moving forward in helping the state grow its manufacturing sector.

“The Innovation Adoption Program is our effort to help all manufacturers in the state embrace innovation to stay competitive,” said Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnect West Virginia. “We do that by matching up small manufacturers with expertise right here in West Virginia to help them either come up with new products or new processes that will save money and improve their bottom line.”

She said the program, which is supported by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, is designed for companies located in West Virginia that have fewer than 250 employees and want to make sure they are embracing innovation to get ready for the future. It is modeled after a similar program started by Innovation Works, based in southwestern Pennsylvania.

TechConnect West Virginia pairs small manufacturers with a “center of excellence” that can provide expertise, Barth said. The centers include the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which is part of West Virginia University’s Industrial Extension Service under the Benjamin Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources; the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing; and resources at other state colleges and universities.

The program can be tailored to meet the needs of small manufacturers. TechConnect West Virginia is eager to expand this effort and see small manufacturers get involved, and as a result create and retain jobs in the state, she said.

The Innovation Adoption Program wants to help grow West Virginia manufacturers and the sector’s employment base as a whole through innovation, said John Golden, director of the program.

TechConnect West Virginia can help a manufacturer look at an existing product and find innovative ways to update it and meet the market’s evolving needs, he said. The program can also assist a manufacturer in bringing new product ideas to life.

“It’s just all about innovation,” Golden said. “What is it that we can do to help a company keep moving forward?”

 He explained that the Innovation Adoption Program searches for potential participants through the network of economic development agencies and organizations that touch businesses throughout the state.

“This is a great program,” Golden said. “It’s energizing to be a part of that.”

The first participant in the Innovation Adoption Program was Uncle Bunk’s, a specialty food company based in Sistersville that makes gourmet condiments. The program helped Uncle Bunk’s improve its processes and increase production, Barth said.

“It’s a home-grown, West Virginia company,” Golden said. “They fit all the criteria for the program. Their products draw from our West Virginia traditions in the foods that they make. They’re just a great story.”

The second participant is FCX Systems Inc., based in Morgantown, which he said is a perfect fit for the Innovation Adoption Program.

“They have a great history of new product design and making sure that their existing products are keeping up with the changes and customers’ needs,” Golden said. “That’s the kind of company we’re looking for — companies that are committed to using innovation and being innovative and staying relevant in the market.”

The three partners in this project are TechConnect West Virginia, FCX Systems and the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, also located in Morgantown. WVMEP is providing software development services that FCX Systems needs to upgrade an existing product — a power frequency converter.

Zenovy Wowczuk, executive director for strategic and international initiatives for FCX Systems, explained that the company is getting ready to release the next generation frequency converter for Boeing’s new 787-10 aircraft in early 2014. This equipment can be found in airports around the world, providing the power for passenger boarding bridges.

Wowczuk said FCX Systems, which has existed since 1987, is working to upgrade some of its software systems to new units, and wanted to clean up the software and bring in additional capabilities. Larger aircrafts are starting to show up at airports across the United States, and the company needed new equipment as soon as possible in order to beat its competitors.

TechConnect West Virginia reached out to WVMEP about potential opportunities to connect with manufacturers, and as a result FCX Systems got involved in the Innovation Adoption Program.

MEPs are part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, with centers located in every state. Jerry Biser, director of WVMEP, said the purpose of the state’s center is to assist small- to medium-sized business enterprises, primarily manufacturers in the United States, in becoming more efficient, cutting costs and adding jobs, and also to provide training.

WVMEP is now especially focusing on economic development, innovation and growth services in the state, he said. This work involves teaching manufacturers how to be more innovative with product development and design, use new technologies and create plans for exporting.

FCX Systems falls into this part of WVMEP’s mission, and the two entities have worked together in the past, Biser said.

Wowczuk said WVMEP is providing a consultant to work with FCX Systems on its current project.

Biser added that WVMEP has handled all the paperwork arranging for the third party engineer for FCX Systems, and each of the steps will flow through WVMEP and TechConnect West Virginia. WVMEP’s job is to make the connections, find the resources and ensure the project stays on track.

“We’re really going to see the benefit,” Wowczuk said.

The program allows FCX Systems to move forward quickly with this work without interrupting its cash flow. He commented that the company, WVMEP and TechConnect collaborate well together, and he’s confident in the project, which is a win for everybody involved.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Innovation Adoption Program can visit www.techconnectwv.org or email iappm@techconnectwv.org.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.