Welcome to the Trust Belt
November 15, 2012
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Welcome to the Trust Belt
Collaboration Pays Off With Big Win
By Roger Mezger, Youngstown
The Cleveland-to-Pittsburgh corridor, once mocked for its long slide into industrial decline, has earned a small but significant change in its old nickname.
Welcome to the Trust Belt.
Thanks to a $30 million federal grant, the stretch along I-80 and I-79 now boasts a national research center for high-tech manufacturing. And it’s clear that the key to landing the big prize was the willingness of politicians, business leaders and educators in two states to set aside rivalries and step into a new dimension of trust and collaboration.
The payoff for playing nice was the September opening of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or NAMII, in downtown Youngstown. The federal grant, plus a $39 million match from the many partners whose joint effort won it, promises to establish the mega-region as the U.S. leader in the rapidly expanding world of additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing.
“It was a very special group of people because we all kind of put our affiliations aside and said, ‘How do we work together?’ ” said Lisa Camp, an assistant dean of engineering at Case Western Reserve University.
CWRU is part of the TechBelt Initiative, a four-year-old network of about 40 universities, companies and economic development groups mostly in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The TechBelt partners linked with other stakeholders and the National Center for Defense Materials and Machining outside Pittsburgh to secure the funding.
The awarding of the grant in August marked the first substantial success for the TechBelt Initiative. The partners are ecstatic, energized and eager for more.
“What we’re hoping this is,” said Rebecca Bagley, president and CEO of NorTech, “is the first in a stream of smaller and bigger wins across that TechBelt.”
Dialogue and doubts
How the TechBelt achieved what may have seemed impossible in a national competition is hardly a story of overnight success. Building and nurturing productive relationships among normally competitive institutions took time.
In the beginning, the players simply didn’t know each other well or understand one another’s capabilities. For the TechBelt experiment to succeed, establishing trust was the first order of business.
“When you build a house, you start with the basement, the foundation,” said Barb Ewing, chief operations officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator. “And that’s essentially what we had to do.”
Comfort levels rose slowly as the large group gathered for meetings every two months. The formal presentations they watched helped explain what various partners were working on. But it was during the downtime at those meetings – coffee breaks and lunches – that critical personal connections were forged.
“Those relationships paid off in spades,” Ewing said.
Not right away, though.
As the months passed and he calendar turned, some partners questioned whether the TechBelt would ever deliver the kind of results they expected. Sure, there were a few small wins, and some recognition from high-level government officials. But most of the grants that the TechBelt sought went elsewhere.
“Sometimes I’m a little amazed that people have stayed as patient as they have and kept on trying,” said Rich Overmoyer, CEO of Fourth Economy Consulting, the Pittsburgh company that handles operations management for the TechBelt Initiative.
A couple of organizations in the Erie area did lose patience and dropped out.
“I think they thought they’d show up to a meeting and immediately there’d be an opportunity,” Overmoyer said.
Strength from failure
The other TechBelt partners buckled down. Two years ago they mobilized to chase a $129 million federal grant for a regional hub promoting energy-efficient building technologies. Once again the money went elsewhere. But the experience, as they say, was priceless. It also laid the groundwork for winning the additive manufacturing grant.
“Hundreds of hours of effort went into writing that proposal,” said NorTech’s Bagley. “And through that process, you solidify relationships with people.”
Perhaps there’s no better example of that than the close ties that have sprouted between TechBelt partners Case Western Reserve University and Carnegie Mellon University. Big-name research universities are wired to compete, not to collaborate.
Before TechBelt, CWRU was oriented toward its partners in Ohio and looked west, while CMU focused on its Pennsylvania partners and looked east, said Jerry Paytas, vice president of research and analytics for Fourth Economy. Then they recognized how well their strengths matched up and how formidable they could be as part of a team.
“Where they are now is amazing,” Paytas said. “They’re working so well together,” along with Youngstown State University.
Crossing the line
The level of trust among TechBelt partners is so great that they haven’t yet discussed how the $69 million pot of money will be doled out. The grant proposal specified that projects would compete for funding under a system to be worked out later. Had the partners insisted instead on carving out individual shares up front, their chances of success with grant reviewers would have suffered, Bagley said.
That selfless approach is all the more remarkable considering that the TechBelt crosses many political boundaries, including state lines.
As economic development groups, Team NEO, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber traditionally have looked to attract businesses to their own turf. Working together as part of the TechBelt, Overmoyer said, they learned to recruit companies by selling them on one of the other metro areas if their own turned out not to be the best fit.
With an important research center in Youngstown, additive manufacturing companies might desire a presence in the TechBelt. “We have a great community that can help them locate here and make it happen,” he said.
Sometimes, though, the multi-state makeup of the TechBelt creates issues.
“That border has been a brick wall,” said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who, along with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) helped put together the TechBelt in 2007 and 2008. Ryan and Altmire saw that Cleveland’s BioEnterprise and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse had begun working together to attract venture capital for bioscience companies. They built on that model and expanded the concept to a larger area and more industries.
Ohio and Pennsylvania have each committed $5 million to additive manufacturing. When federal money is involved, though, border problems can arise. Every federal agency has its own map dividing states into regions. Sometimes Ohio and Pennsylvania are in the same region and sometimes not, complicating the grant process.
“That’s just goofy when you look at it,” Overmoyer said, a hindrance to collaboration.
Looking for more
Though the TechBelt Initiative has had its doubters, the economic benefit of persistent collaboration is easy to calculate. Stakeholders have invested a little more than $425,000 in the TechBelt since its inception, Fourth Economy says. The total payoff so far stands at about $75 million, including the $69 million going toward NAMII. That’s a return on investment of about 17,500 percent.
The next challenge for the TechBelt partners will be figuring out how to parlay their big win into more opportunities. Overmoyer sees the NAMII project as just the start, a platform to build on. “It’s not the end prize we’re looking for.”
Most of the NAMII grant money is coming from the Department of Defense, which has its own ideas about the future of additive manufacturing. But Overmoyer sees the technology as a perfect match for the life sciences industry, a regional strength. CWRU already is working on creating human tissue with 3-D printing. Medical device companies also stand to benefit.
Ewing of the Youngstown Business Incubator scoffs at the notion that winning the NAMII grant after a string of losses was like playing the lottery: Buy enough of those scratch-off tickets and eventually you’ll get one you can cash in.
Luck had nothing to do with it, she said. Working together over the years, learning to trust each other and never giving up through all the failures led to the megamillions. And she thinks it will again.
“If you learn a lot from failures,” Ewing said, “my God, do you ever learn from success.”