From: John Russell, Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio
Published August 20, 2004 12:00 AM

University Officials Say Polymers Still Show Big Promise

AKRON, Ohio ? It's an old, familiar promise: polymers can turn Akron into a high-tech city, complete with hot-selling products and lucrative jobs.So far, however, it's been slow to happen.

But officials at the University of Akron say polymers still have big promise.

The university, world-famous for its polymer research, is in the final weeks of preparing an exhaustive proposal to try to win millions of dollars in state funds to turn polymer technology across the state into new products, companies and jobs.

But the university has lots of competition. More than 20 other proposals are also vying to win part of the $65 million pool in state money to boost promising high-tech industries.

The state awards two big prizes a year, in the form of millions of dollars to build a Wright Center of Innovation. The goal is to generate statewide economic growth by tapping into promising technologies and industries.

"We're optimistic we have a good shot," said Dr. Frank Harris, distinguished professor of polymer science at UA.

The university came up empty in its last two efforts to win $10 million to build a Wright Center. The major criticisms were that UA's plans wouldn't create enough jobs and didn't have a strong enough partnership with industry.

So UA is taking a different tack this year to address those concerns.

First, it is broadening its proposal to include many kinds of polymer applications in one of the field's hottest areas: nanocomposites, or particles that are about one-1,000th of the thickness of a human hair.

Those particles can be used to construct hundreds of high-tech devices, such as biomedical instruments that diagnose illness, or chemical devices that act like electric circuits at a fraction of the cost of copper or silicon.

Second, rather than taking a solo leading role, UA is teaming up with Ohio State University and the University of Dayton, plus about 20 other universities, companies and organizations as collaborators.

Third, UA and its partners are combing through economic data to try to build a solid case that winning the funds will help retain and create thousands of jobs in Ohio.

"We think we have a much better story to tell, and we'll tell it effectively," said Dr. Sharell Mikesell, a polymer scientist and executive director of the Ohio Polymer Strategy Council.

Polymers represent the state's largest industry, with about 142,000 jobs at about 2,500 companies. But growth has been slowing in recent years, while other states have spawned or attracted more polymer companies.

Polymers are long chains of molecules that can be turned into a wide range of materials, from plastic cups and car bumpers to high-performance fabrics and artificial organs.

UA and others have until Sept. 22 to submit their proposals to the Ohio Department of Development. A panel of scientists from the National Academies in Washington will evaluate the proposals by next spring.

UA declined to say how much it is seeking, but acknowledged it hopes to win more than $10 million.

Other requests for Wright Center funding include a proposal by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for a center on fuel cells; a proposal by Bowling Green State University for a center on displays and sensors; a proposal by Ohio State for a center on propulsion and power; and a proposal by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation for a center on brain stimulation.

Source: Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio

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