I was there more than five years ago when community leaders unveiled what would become the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron. They filled the John S. Knight Center with pride and promise.
The pride stemmed from having wowed the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. A contingent of two dozen from Akron persuaded the foundation to back in a big way the idea of a biomedical research and development operation that would draw on local strengths to help drive new knowledge and products, jobs and growth. And there resided the promise, or what was described as a “21st Century Transformation: The Power of Collaborative Innovation.”
How has that gone?
ABIA recently saw the departure of two founding partners, Akron General Health System and the Northeast Ohio Medical University. Akron General must contend with the stresses of a changing health-care market. NEOMED signaled for a while that it had other priorities.
The institute has not received the $80 million pledged that celebratory day. The Knight Foundation has done its part, $20 million. So have the partners, more or less, now the University of Akron, Summa Health System and Akron Children’s Hospital. FirstEnergy stepped up, as it often does. Yet ABIA has seen roughly $50 million. The shortfall largely reflects the failure of the state to meet its pledge of $20 million, money that would have been routed through the university to deliver an essential ingredient — talent.
That is not to overlook the substantial successes of the institute, among other things, national recognition of its process for spurring entrepreneurship and the commercialization of new technologies, and its much-applauded simulation center for training in health care. It has begun to build a larger network, recently entering a partnership with Nottingham Spirk, a Cleveland-based firm that helps companies deliver new products.
Much of this involves the usual twists and turns, ups and downs of a start-up, a productive honing of focus. Yet there is something else familiar at work, a young operation with financial strains, needing resources to reach the next level.
ABIA has arrived at a crossroad, and in that way, it is worth dwelling on an analysis by the Technology Partnership Practice of Battelle, completed late last year. It looked at the way forward for the Biomedical Corridor in Akron. It identified challenges and made recommendations, adding helpful doses of clarity and direction.
The biomedical industry is vast. An Akron must find its niche. Battelle identified “a breadth of opportunities” in biomaterials, tapping, in particular, the assets at the University of Akron, Kent State University and the many companies here at work in the field.
The area already has set building blocks, such as the Global Business Accelerator, the Akron BioInvestments Fund, the Functional Materials Center, a joint effort of the University of Akron and ABIA, and the “bridges” strategy of Mayor Plusquellic that has attracted related foreign investment and know-how. Missing, according to Battelle, is coherence, a mechanism for shaping and advancing the whole.
The community that boasts about its prowess in collaboration hasn’t been collaborating enough.
Battelle identifies five “key challenges” in developing a biomaterials sector. Each, to lesser and greater degrees, highlights a lack of coordination. The analysis points to a “relatively ‘balkanized’ environment” for research, the Akron area an “ad hoc collection of assets.”
The area is rich in entrepreneurial initiatives yet a lack of coordination works against companies making the transition from new technology to the marketplace. They don’t know where to turn for help in the “sea of acronyms.” More, the area doesn’t do enough to leverage regional assets, in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, conditions ripe for advances in biomaterials.
The call is for collaboration on a most ambitious scale, beyond local partners joining together, though that has proved more difficult than many expected. What Battelle cites, among other needs, including additional venture capital, is a single entity to drive coordination, bringing together the many players, especially researchers at the University of Akron, economic development shops and engaged businesses. It proposes a Greater Akron Biomaterials Connector.
Yet the connector already is here. Recall the first purpose of the BioInnovation Institute, a catalyst for turning research into products, chief convenor and collaborator.
Tap the full potential of the institute, led by Frank Douglas, who is well placed for the larger task, and the area would be in a better position to turn a strength in biomaterials into something much stronger, the possibilities far greater, say, than locating an arena downtown. So, the institute and the area face a crossroad. Will collaboration yield a distinctive result, one that elevates the city and its surroundings?
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.