What does it take to succeed as a start-up or an older company looking to do something new?
Go to www.magnetnetwork.org., and you will find the advice of William Ullom and James Garrett, the driving forces behind Vadxx Energy, the company turning petroleum waste products (like tires and plastic scrap) into crude oil in Akron.
Garrett, the chief executive officer, cites “persistence,” pointing to Ullom, the company’s founder, as a perfect example. Ullom emphasizes a willingness to listen. “I just listened to everybody,” he relays, “and I tried to take everything to heart.”
His words resonate as you glance at the players with a part in the promising Vadxx story. The list includes the Akron Global Business Accelerator, NorTech, Jumpstart, the city of Akron and the University of Akron Research Foundation. Also mentioned is MAGNET, or the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, long a part of the economic development landscape in Northeast Ohio, an Ohio Edison Technology Center, a nonprofit organization with the mission of helping manufacturers compete.
To hear Garrett and Ullom tell it, MAGNET proved key, from making connections, to securing investment, to shaping the logistics of feeding all that waste material into an efficient process. More, MAGNET aided in the scaling up, from pilot project to a commercially viable plant.
Of late, MAGNET has engaged in its own bit of innovation, building on the “listening,” or network, concept, reflecting a wide-range of input from across the region, seeking to do more to enhance local strengths in manufacturing. It has unveiled PRISM, the Partnership for Regional Innovation Services to Manufacturers. (I promise, no more acronyms.)
PRISM aims to fill a gap for the region’s small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies. If the premium in today’s economy is innovation, many of these firms lack the capacity for developing and going to market with new, higher technology products. PRISM serves as a portal, a way for manufacturers to link up with the necessary resources across the region, from universities and labs to economic development agencies and sources of capital.
What’s distinctive is that PRISM doesn’t merely open the door or make introductions. It has the related expertise to help with the execution, getting from the idea to the market, much as Vadxx Energy has benefited.
Sit down with John Schober, Mike O’Donnell, Robert Schmidt and Greg Krizman of PRISM, and you can practically see the essential cluster coming together. They are prospecting for manufacturers. Not everyone qualifies. They are looking for companies with real promise, the potential for 10 percent to 20 percent growth through innovation. They have a dozen or so in their portfolio now, with a target of 50 by the end of 2014, and remaining there, adding companies as others complete the regimen.
The objective, ultimately, is a much more vibrant culture of innovation. A manufacturer fretting about relying too heavily on one or two customers would have an avenue for developing new products and markets. Another may have failed in pursuing a new path and would be helped in learning from its mistakes.
At PRISM, they preach: “Fail fast, fail cheap, get smart.”
In time, manufacturer by manufacturer, a shared experience develops, companies, universities, economic development types and others building a cluster, communicating, trading ideas and approaches. This also amounts to a hive of jobs, the region proving attractive because if a position doesn’t work with one shop, you can find employment nearby.
Again, think Los Angeles and the movies. Or Seattle and software. Or this part of the country and cars.
An obvious strength of our region is the small- and medium-sized manufacturer. PRISM works as a catalyst in raising the level of the game.
No one contends this is easy. So many other factors belong in the equation, including the quality of the work force. Yet PRISM reflects indispensable thinking, and it points to local success stories.
Sauder Woodworking of Archbold long flourished as a producer of ready-to-assemble furniture. Yet a decade ago, it faced flat growth, competitive imports and sliding profits. It enlisted MAGNET for assistance, leading to a unique, wood-paneled drop-ceiling system and brighter prospects for the bottom line.
Thermotion of Mentor makes actuators (technology to move things, from opening doors to controlling air flows). It needed to upgrade its product to penetrate new markets. With the help of MAGNET, it got the job done, exchanging the likelihood of cost-cutting for new growth.
All of this highlights the recent hollowness of the presidential debate, Mitt Romney accusing President Obama of failing to appreciate what it takes to build a business. What the president tried to suggest (if clumsily) is that successful businesses draw on many things, including public schools, roadways and research.
They thrive, increasingly, in a network, like William Ullom of Vadxx Energy listening to others, or what PRISM wants to see for manufacturers in Northeast Ohio.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.