Ohio Third Frontier program grants and awards finally are flowing again, the money funding investments in high-tech ventures that hold the promise of accelerating growth and creating new jobs. Yet at a time when Gov. John Kasich says speed is of the essence in economic development, his administration has opened the Third Frontier spigot just part way, with funding delays and a lack of clarity creating unnecessary obstacles for entrepreneurs across the state.
The Third Frontier Commission ended its fiscal year June 30 having left unspent most of the $190 million it had available, thus rolling the money over into the next year. In July, the panel picked up the pace, allocating $21 million, with several million flowing in grants to business-university partnerships in Northeast Ohio. Kent State received $3 million to work with four local companies on polymer and liquid crystal technologies.
As welcome as the investments are, the Third Frontier Commission, over which Kasich has gained greater control than Bob Taft and Ted Strickland, is still at work revisiting the Entrepreneurial Signature Program, conduit for tens of millions that support agencies such as Akron’s Global Business Accelerator. These operations fulfill a crucial role providing support and early-stage funding to start-up businesses, fulfilling the Third Frontier’s mission of serving as a catalyst for new products and technologies.
A meeting this month is expected to bring long-awaited focus to the administration’s plans for the Entrepreneurial Signature Program and other items. The governor and his top jobs and investment adviser, Mark Kvamme, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, have made clear they lean in the direction of loans instead of grants, of job development over support for basic research.
Worth remembering is what the Taft administration, and voters, had in mind when conceiving, approving and supporting the Third Frontier program. Jobs were an important part of the message, to be sure, but the program had the first purpose of rekindling the creative energy that once drove the state’s industrial might.
In other words, a strategy of loans to companies ready to ramp up hiring isn’t enough. For the state to yield successes in the long run (beyond, say, the governor’s re-election), there must be steady support for the risk-takers just getting started on the road to commercialization. Otherwise, the state risks finding the pipeline empty — the Third Frontier indistinguishable from its other economic development programs.