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.''
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.
Winer, for example, had no technical experience when he set out to create a better spray system. He received encouragement from potential users and interested the University of Akron in his idea. In 1987, with the university's help and the support of the Edison polymer center here in Akron, he applied for and got $218,000 in Edison seed money and used it to convince private investors to put up another $500,000.
The university, one of the nation's top polymer-science schools, also helped Winer's scientists develop the special plastics and the synthetic rubber Winer needed for his system. Now some 200 companies are looking into his ``Akro'' dispensing system, a blimp-shaped plastic tube covered with a black rubber sleeve. Winer says people are interested because his system does not use the environmentally damaging chemicals found in traditional aerosol cans and is less expensive and more versatile than the trigger-pump mechanisms typically used for household spray cleaners. He expects to begin commercial production this summer.
The centers and their members also help each other with particular technical problems. When one small Ohio manufacturer was having trouble keeping an acrylic disk stuck to an aluminum hub, it went to the Edison Materials Technology Center in Dayton. Scientists there contacted the materials lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which had a lot of experience with adhesives. They got a recommendation, and delivered the adhesive to the company that afternoon. The solution saved a major contract and 13 jobs.
Should the federal government expand its own initiatives in technology development? Many development advocates say yes. ``What we are talking about, really, is making markets work better,'' says David Osborne, author of a book on state-government initiatives in the 1980s.
But conservatives don't like the idea.
``If the taxpayers of Ohio want to spend money on individual companies, that's fine with me,'' says Claude Barfield, director of science policy at the American Enterprise Institute. But ``there is a question of equity.... Why should you help only some of them?''
Even some Democrats are wary. ``I am gun-shy and skeptical,'' says Charles Schultze, director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution and chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers under Jimmy Carter. ``What would happen is that it would become a big political football.''
So far, political interference appears minimal in Ohio. The centers are independently run, usually by industry and university figures.
``The program is not designed to pick winners and losers,'' Governor Celeste says. ``The centers themselves will nurture the winners.''
Just as important, Ohio has weeded out the losers. When state officials felt an Edison information-technology center in Columbus was faltering, they urged its directors to assess it. They decided to close down. Last summer David Allen, an outside consultant, evaluated six Edison incubator programs and found that three needed major changes.
``It appears the results of the evaluation were looked at objectively,'' he says. Edison officials discouraged the three incubators from reapplying for Edison funding. They didn't.
One in a series of accasional articles on life in the United States.