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Make a Better Bottle and People Will Beat a Path...

Bob Winer's squeeze-bottle highlights state role in fostering technology

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1990



AKRON, OHIO

ONE by one, inventor Bob Winer picks up the plastic bottles lined up on his desk and squirts. A fine mist of water sprays out of one. Hand lotion pops out of another. ``It works in any position: upside down, sideways,'' says Mr. Winer, demonstrating. ``This is really going to be great for cleaners - oven cleaners, for instance, where if you turn it upside down it doesn't work.''

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It's an example of American ingenuity with a twist: This time the backyard inventor got help from the state. Without Ohio's assistance, Winer says, ``we could never have afforded to have done the research to get to this point.''

While policymakers continue to debate the federal government's proper role in spurring new technology, 44 states have moved ahead with their own programs. Ohio's Thomas Edison Program is one of the largest and best recognized.

``I think the state of Ohio has been a leader trying to link industry and universities,'' says Walt Plosila, who has worked with 30 such state programs as a consultant.

``Ohio, actually, is a state that has really forged ahead,'' says Deborah Wince-Smith, assistant secretary for technology development at the United States Commerce Department. ``The state has been very, very far-sighted ... on technology-commercialization initiatives.''

The rationale for the Edison Program was forged during the dark days of the 1982-83 recession, which devastated Ohio's industrial-based economy. ``What we really needed to do was find a way to bring the latest in technology to our basic industry,'' recalls Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste (D).

His solution: link the state's academic resources with its businesses. This helped Ohio recover and targeted what the Council on Competitiveness and other groups have identified as a major weakness in the US: technology transfer.

``You have to ask: What is the marketplace doing today?'' says Christopher Coburn, executive director of the Edison Program. Since other countries are linking government, university, and industrial resources, they are moving laboratory innovations into the marketplace faster than US companies, he says.

The Edison Program sponsors business incubators (centers to help new companies get on their feet); administers seed grants for inventions; and has set up eight independent centers to conduct specialized research and get it into the hands of industry. Established in 1983, the program has overseen more than $300 million in advanced technology investments - more than $100 million directly from state coffers.

What did Ohio get in return?

State officials point to 110 new companies and 409 new jobs created in its incubators, two dozen patents from its first 50 completed seed grants, and a wide variety of innovations at its centers. These include: nonsmearing newspaper ink, a better-preserving strawberry, a mobile truck wash, and a new polymer for use in treating burn victims.

As for business support, more than all, some 700 companies are Edison members.

But even evaluators say it is hard to measure the success of such a long-term and haphazard process. In fact, what is striking about the Edison program is that instead of setting up a government-mandated formula for success, it acts as a spawning ground for innovations by all sorts of people.