Warren incubator growing

WARREN – Northeast Ohio’s strong, blue-collar work force, proximity to suppliers and manufacturing expertise are big benefits when it comes to developing new forms of energy.

Add in counseling and networking from an organization like Warren’s Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center for fledgling energy producers, and the area becomes even more likely to harbor success, according to Benson Lee, whose company, Technology Management Inc., or TMI, is among more than 30 organizations using TBEIC’s help.

TMI designs fuel cell systems to generate power from diesel, bio and jet fuel in what Lee describes as a ”disruptive technology.”

Fuel cells convert fuels like hydrogen or natural gas into electricity through an electrochemical reaction. Some believe the technology will become a significant generation source that ultimately could replace internal combustion engines in automobiles or provide backup power for large energy users. Lee’s plan is eventually to power homes, and military units or the developing power needs of third-world countries.

”You can create an entirely new technology, and that is what Ohio needs right now,” he said recently.

TBEIC, funded through a combination of public and private sources including a $2.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, is a Warren-based incubator working to develop and commercialize early stage energy technologies that eventually could help grow the energy grid.

It’s the time and investment – not TBEIC’s efforts and mission – that some critics are calling into question, particularly without measurable results.

The advisory role of TBEIC leadership is ongoing despite repeated delays in construction of the planned offices and lab space on Courthouse Square in downtown Warren.

Critics like Newton Falls-based Quality Switch, however, are appalled at the amount of time and millions of dollars in public funding invested in the project without measurable results. Quality Switch manufactures switches used inside very high voltage transformers. The company became acquainted with TBEIC in 2011 as it pursued the possibility of forming a public-private-educational partnership similar to European models where high-voltage experiments could be conducted domestically. For now the company is forced to travel to high voltage labs in the southern United States or abroad to purchase lab time for testing.

”I see them spending a lot of money, but I don’t see anything happening,” said Quality Switch President Larry Dix.

Company Vice President Jeremy A. Sewell echoed the sentiment. ”It’s taxpayer money. It’s not like people have money to burn around here,” Sewell said.

Project collaborator FirstEnergy, however, has seen so much promise in TBEIC that the electric utility has provided about $60,000 of financial support along with technical guidance over the past four years, said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin.

”It appears that it’s a worthwhile entity,” Durbin said. ”Sometimes these start-up groups take time to develop.”

Guidance provided by FirstEnergy included advice on how new technology developed at TBEIC can potentially be integrated into the existing electrical grid, Durbin said.

TMI’s Lee described counseling and networking assistance provided by TBEIC as invaluable. He has been utilizing TBEIC’s help in his attempts to develop the high-tech systems for more than a year.

”They have really taken the time to get involved with some of the nuances and what we are trying to do,” Lee said of the three leaders of TBEIC’s programs. ”Most of the time, consultants come in and take a look, say a few things and then vanish. But I think TBEIC has got the vision … I have never run into another group like them, and that’s a positive statement.”

TMI, which is based in Cleveland, so far has had little need for business incubator space planned by TBEIC for several years for downtown Warren. If pending additive manufacturing proposals the company has submitted with Youngstown State University come to fruition, though, TMI’s Lee said Warren incubator space could make practical sense.

For now, repeated delays in incubator building construction have had little effect on his project.

”The building is an attractive asset when you are working in a technology field, but the building is just part of it,” said TBEIC Chief Executive Dave Nestic. ”Business coaching and help (for businesses) getting access to capital, that’s what really defines the incubator.”

Success of projects like TMI’s are difficult to measure because development is slow and costly, raising the ire of some TBEIC detractors that want to see immediate, measurable results. For now, TBEIC measures its results in the number of clients it assists. Today, Nestic said the organization is helping 30 to 40 companies, working closely with 10 to 12 at a time.

”You don’t just hang your shingle out and say, ‘Hi, we are an incubator and we are helping people now,”’ Nestic said. ”The whole first year in getting this all started was just organizing and strategizing. When I started here, there was no incubator program. We had to design that.

”We are looking into networks and getting people involved that can provide deal flow. We are trying to put as much into it to make the chances of a successful outcome more probable. There is nothing that you can do in business that is a guaranteed success,” Nestic said.

Ultimately, Nestic sees benefits for Warren, even though many of the businesses hail from far away.

”The idea is if we are here and we are available to them, maybe they will locate here. We are bringing focus to Warren, Ohio, as a player in the energy business,” Nestic said. ”If it’s energy technology, then we are a pathway for them to commercialize their technology.”

Nestic said he knows the value of the local impact, but also knows the critical role of more distant geographical reach.

”If all we are is local, we are not going to do anything. The more national we are, the better positioned we are, and the better we are for local impact,” he said.