As the research in these initiatives began to bear fruit in the form of new knowledge, Proenza saw that another element was needed in the university-centric model: a bridge between academia and business. Researchers could not be expected to create breakthroughs in materials, openly share the knowledge with their corporate partners, and then stand by as the advances were turned into lucrative products in which they shared no gain. That smacked of the old days, when academics were forbidden from sullying their hands with commerce. So Proenza created an independent research foundation, which provided a mechanism for professors at the state university to financially benefit from their inventions.
The state government, too, played a role in making the Akron Model a success. In 2002, Governor Bob Taft launched a project called Ohio’s Third Frontier, a $2.1 billion initiative to “create new technology-based products, companies, industries and jobs,” then the largest state effort of its kind in the U.S. Third Frontier, which was renewed in 2010, provides funding to Ohio’s technology-based companies and helps connect them to universities and nonprofit research institutions.
With grants from Third Frontier, two professors at the University of Akron, Frank Harris and Stephen Cheng, founded Akron Polymer Systems. They hired 12 Ph.D.s and many other scientists from Akron’s enormous pool of talent. Their mission was to develop special films for flexible LCD screens for use in solar cells and medical and aerospace applications—research that was licensed and has generated $1 billion in sales over the years.
Akron Polymer Systems is just one of a whole new generation of materials-focused start-ups that have risen from the ashes of the tire-manufacturing industry, thanks to the combination of Proenza’s visionary work, revitalized research initiatives, opportunities for commercial gain, and government support. Akron Surface Technologies, for example, is a start-up formed through a collaboration between the manufacturer Timken and the University of Akron. Timken moved some of its research labs onto the university’s campus to facilitate collaborative research focused on corrosion, sensors, and coatings. The arrangement combines knowledge-sharing with proprietary research, so Timken retains certain commercial rights for the use of its knowledge in specific applications, such as bearings, while allowing others to apply the knowledge to realms such as biomedicine and aerospace.
But not all the commercial action is in start-ups and in the labs of large tire companies. Other large and long-established companies with a presence in the area, such as Akron-based A. Schulman, which manufactures high-quality specialty plastics, saw that it, too, could benefit from the Akron Model. Although A. Schulman operates plants around the world—including in Mexico, Asia, and Europe—the company chose to build a new plastic-fabrication facility in Akron, precisely because of its university-centric environment. Joseph M. Gingo, A. Schulman’s chairman and CEO, said the company sees great value in “having one of the leading polymer-research institutions in our own backyard.” The company engages interns from the University of Akron and hires many graduates to staff its facilities in Akron and around the world.