Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Expert: Ohio can choose high-tech economic future



By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If Ohio - or any city in Ohio - wants to transform itself into a technology-based economy, a carefully chosen strategy can make it happen, one of the state's leading economic development experts said Tuesday.

Walter Plosila, vice president of public technology management for the Battelle research institute in Columbus, outlined his ideas for about 50 people invited by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. More than at any other time in the nation's history, he said, economies are no longer preordained by geography or natural resources.

Instead, cities and regions are choosing their own economic futures by combining their industrial strengths with their research institutions and creating a place appealing to entrepreneurs, tech workers, suppliers and investors, Plosila said. That concept is known as clustering. Battelle has helped develop clusters in cities such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The goal, Plosila said, is not to copy Boston or the Silicon Valley, but to become a center of excellence in a specific technological area. Austin, Texas, developed an information technology cluster in less than a decade, he said, and Maryland and San Diego spawned biotechnology clusters over longer periods of time. St. Louis is asserting itself as a cluster for several industries, including auto/aerospace, plant/life sciences and logistics/transportation, he said.

In Battelle's 273-page assessment of Ohio last year, the privately owned institute found core strengths in advanced materials; biosciences; information technology; power and propulsion; and instruments, controls and electronics. It also saluted the state's university system and noted that Ohio ranks 10th in the receipt of private-sector research and development dollars.

But the report also called Ohio complacent in product innovation and reliant on older, traditional industries. It also said Ohio has a lower concentration of technology workers than the national average - not good for a state that wants a bigger piece of the high-tech action.

"Talent, at least in technology-driven companies, is your biggest asset, so you want to keep and replenish your talent pool," Plosila said. "What's helping some of the cutting-edge regions of the West is that some of the best talent of the Midwest is moving there."

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft launched his $1.6 billion, 10-year Third Frontier program last year to promote technology, and entrepreneurs and venture investors in Greater Cincinnati are trying to recover from the technology market crash that began in 2000. Otherwise, the Tristate is struggling to attract tech workers into a culturally conservative area with few recognizable technology companies.

Plosila, however, said regions can succeed in building tech clusters through the "marriage" of private industry and research centers such as universities. He said Greater Cincinnati - with Procter & Gamble, GE Aircraft Engines and other large companies - has a base to build on.

"Lots of people in Ohio think of technology simply as biotechnology and information technology and ignore the strengths in the high end of manufacturing in Ohio's and Cincinnati's base," Plosila said.

E-mail jmcnair@enquirer.com



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