The Times West Virginian

August 5, 2012

TechConnect program designed to help manufacturers

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — TechConnect West Virginia’s new program is concentrating on making the state’s manufacturing companies more competitive in the global marketplace.

On July 23, TechConnect West Virginia officially announced the creation of its Innovation Adoption Program in a press release. For the past two weeks, the organization has been working to get the word out about this tool, which is designed to improve their bottom line of small manufacturers and help manufacturing across the state, said Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnect.

She said small manufacturers with 250 employees or fewer who have ideas for either a new process or product can apply for the program, which is funded by a Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation grant.

“TechConnect is deeply grateful to the Benedum Foundation for providing the funds to get this program off the ground in West Virginia,” Barth said.

Based on their needs, the individual company will be paired with a “center of excellence” in West Virginia that is doing research or work in the specific area that is of concern to the manufacturer, and together they will work out an agreement, she said.

These centers could include the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI), one of the schools at West Virginia University or Marshall University, or other higher education institutions or technical nonprofit entities. The partnerships are meant to be fairly short term and last about a year, Barth said.

She said funding for each project is capped at $25,000, and companies are asked to put up matching funds as well.

“We’d like to see a really robust application process,” Barth said. “I think we could see a lot of potential applicants coming from a variety of manufacturing sectors in the state, and we’re eager to find out who does apply.”

With manufacturing expected to start making a resurgence in the state and country in the coming years, TechConnect wants to assist small firms in West Virginia so they’ll be ready to take advantage when that activity occurs, she said.

“(Manufacturing) is where we see a lot of innovation happen and this program is designed to help spur this innovation here in West Virginia by using resources we already have (in our centers of excellence),” Barth said.

She said manufacturing is an important part of the state’s economy, and TechConnect believes that through programs like IAP, companies will become more productive and be able to increase sales and hire more West Virginians.

The Innovation Adoption Program was modeled after a successful program that Innovation Works in Pittsburgh, Pa., started, Barth said. Mark Borger, an independent, technology-based economic development consultant, has been managing the Innovation Works program and is also the managing consultant for the Innovation Adoption Program in West Virginia.

Borger explained that the program at Innovation Works came to life after a report was done. The study examined areas of opportunity within Pennsylvania, particularly the southwestern area, during a time when there was a decline in various sectors of the economy. It looked at the manufacturing sector and found that there were opportunities to partner existing manufacturing companies with centers of excellence that could bring expertise, offer capabilities and provide access to equipment.

Borger said the Innovation Works program has received some awards and is recognized as a best practice model. During its six years in operation, the program has invested $1.6 million into 38 manufacturing companies in southwestern Pennsylvania, and 168 jobs were created or maintained as a result.

“I think it’s been fairly successful,” he said.

Innovation Works and TechConnect both care about helping companies create and maintain jobs, bring new products to the market, increase their revenue, bring down operational costs and become more productive, he said.

The two organizations have had an ongoing relationship and have worked jointly on some proposals to the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Borger said. Their goal to target innovation-based economic development activities brought them together, but the other factor was the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which supports projects in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

He said the foundation, which awarded grant money to Innovation Works for the past three years, was interested in continuing to fund this program but also requested that the organization help TechConnect pilot a similar effort for West Virginia. Innovation Works in conjunction with TechConnect wrote a proposal to Benedum for its support of the program in Pennsylvania and to start a new program in West Virginia.

The money from the Benedum Foundation will fund the Innovation Adoption Program pilot through May 2013. The program is just now getting started, and Borger said he has been working to customize the efforts for West Virginia and reach out to RCBI to find some prospective manufacturing companies to participate.

“It’s about job creation in the manufacturing sector in the state,” he said. “What comes with that or what’s kind of necessary to enable that job creation could be new product development or more efficiencies (in the operations). The ultimate objective hopefully is job creation and retention.”

Borger said the program also focuses on building strong relationships between the companies, which have introduced a new technology or are pursuing a new product line, and the centers of excellence.

“We’re all hopeful and excited,” he said.

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