Innovative projects can be a statewide catalyst for research dollars and jobs

Creating high-impact solutions for Ohio growth industries is the focus of an initial project round sponsored by the state-funded Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN).

The 18 projects in Round 1 and Round 2 cover innovative fields such as energy storage, power and propulsion; materials and manufacturing; human performance; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); and communications and data analytics.

Each technology project, organized and located at six university-based Centers of Excellence (COE) throughout Ohio, has an opportunity to represent the next bold step in their respective industry spheres, say OFRN leaders. The OFRN COEs have more than $200 million of new opportunities in the proposal stage statewide and they have won more than $30 million of new federal and industry sponsored research over the past 12 months.

To advance the projects funded by this statewide initiative, the OFRN has secured subject matter experts in industry outreach and engagement, SBIR/STTR acquisition and technology commercialization. Working in a hands-on capacity is a team of Commercialization Executives (CE) who engage directly with the principal investigators, COE leaders and industry partners to assist in the transfer of technology from university research centers to Ohio companies.

"All of these projects push their industries forward, in some cases disruptively," says CE Dave Nestic. "Some of them are a leap in technology rather than an incremental improvement, and could be real breakouts."

Nestic points to $1.65 million in OFRN funding dedicated to research in energy storage for defense and aerospace. Led by Case Western Reserve University and a consortium of other Ohio universities and industry partners, the enterprise explores new approaches to battery development for improved performance and safety.

One project, for example, harnesses silicon anodes to create a high-energy battery with greater capacity and longer life. Another effort investigates ways to build a battery that operates safely in high temperatures. Both projects are taking place at the Partnership for Research in Energy Storage and Integration for Defense and Space Exploration (PRESIDES) COE housed at Case Western Reserve.

The eventual goal of the PRESIDES COE and its projects is to create energy storage technologies that demonstrate commercial viability while meeting the priorities of national labs partnered with OFRN in its mission to boost Ohio's tech-centric economy.

Battery technologies spun out over the OFRN projects' two-year life cycle could be used for, among other things, increased flying distance for military drones. With the multi-billion dollar rechargeable energy storage market seeing increased demand in the renewable energy and transportation sectors, research and development in this space now is putting the Buckeye State ahead of the game for the future.

A strong collaboration

PRESIDES will measure its success using several benchmarks, including the anticipated attraction of more than $500,000 in external funding at the end of two years and more than $2 million within three years, according to a Case Western Reserve press release. Additional federal investment, along with collaborations between colleges and state-based small- to medium-sized companies, exemplifies OFRN's original vision, organizers say.

Expectations for the attraction of additional funding appear more than achievable.
PRESIDES projects supported by the OFRN are already in pursuit of $2.9 million for commercialization and development. To date, $1 million of new federal funding has been awarded, and an additional $1.9 million awaits award decisions.

Established in July 2015 by the Ohio Federal Military Jobs Commission (OFMJC), the OFRN has so far awarded $15.6 million across 18 total projects over two rounds. Focus areas for the OFRN include energy storage; power and propulsion; materials and manufacturing; human performance; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); and communications and data analytics.

The six COEs — PRESIDES; Communications, Cyber, Positioning, Navigation & Timing (C2PNT); Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (C4ISR); Human Performance & Health Sciences (HPHS); Materials & Advanced Manufacturing (M&M); and Ohio Center for Propulsion & Power (OCPP) — are using this funding to win new economy-boosting endeavors.

Investments are driven by the needs of national labs — the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton (NAMRU-D), the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) in Dayton and the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Aaron Bates, an OFRN CE working to ramp up the facilitation of network-funded technology, says the number of potential commercial applications from OFRN funded activity is not limited by the number of individually funded projects.

"What makes the network unique is that the OFRN applies resources in the early stages of technology development to provide market data and commercial road mapping that generally doesn't happen until the research dollars have already been spent," Bates says. “With this information, researchers and industry partners can explore multiple commercial opportunities and maximize the research investment.”

For instance, the HPHS COE is building their Live, Virtual and Constructive (LVC) training system on top of Amazon's Echo platform. The platform's "Alexa" voice recognition capabilities could be used for diagnosis and treatment of wounded soldiers, or for recording key patient information in the field for later transcription. Echo tech has particular potential for battlefield or hospital situations, as it allows for remote operation while the user's hands are dirty.

Voice technology innovation has enormous potential for investment, says Bates. He notes the significant market interest in such ideas, illustrated by the Amazon launch of a $100 million fund to devote venture capital dollars in companies integrating Alexa into their services and hardware. Thus far, Amazon has invested in 22 startups, mostly focused on smart home and wearable products.

OFRN support has enabled the LVC project to seek an additional $3.7 million to further project goals. To date, $3.6 million of new federal funding has been awarded, and an additional $100,000 awaits award decisions.

Keeping research dollars in state

Collaboration among COEs and universities sparks a further opportunity to tap into a deep well of statewide research dollars, says OFRN CE Mark Hartel. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, home to the Air Force Research Laboratory, has a $4.3 billion annual economic impact on the state; including a $216 million spend on small businesses in nearby Montgomery and Greene counties. A continued effort to commercialize technology emerging from COEs can keep those dollars in state, Hartel says.

"AFRL, NASA and other labs should be using more resources here in Ohio," he says. "Why send $2 million to Stanford when you can send it to Case Western Reserve? As OFRN works to strengthen local connections for commercialization, its leaders stress that the goal is not about doing research for research's sake. It's about understanding what labs (and consumers) want, aligning that to what researchers can create, and connecting it to what Ohio companies can manufacture. Those things will create the broad economic impact of the OFRN."

Company growth and job creation can be the results of cross-pollinating so many talented people, believe OFRN stakeholders and participants. If all goes well, OFRN funded technologies will bring Ohio companies $350 million in private sector investment and 2,500 new jobs over time.

Funding to support the OFRN passed the Ohio budget signed by Gov. John Kasich in 2015. In all, $25 million over two years was provided to launch this collaborative initiative. OFRN supported projects have so far applied for more than $200 million in federal funding. To date, those applications have secured over $30 million in new federal funding, resulting in a full return on investment and net gain to Ohio of $5 million over the initial cost of the program itself.

Upcoming OFRN event

On Thursday, March 30, OFRN will host a free industry mixer featuring the Communications, Cyber, Positioning, Navigation & Timing (C2PNT) and Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (C4ISR) COEs via an informative and business-focused agenda at the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center, 151 Goodman Dr., Cincinnati, OH, 45219. The event will provide an OFRN overview as well as introduce guests to both of the COEs and their work.

Lunch, networking and technical display viewing begins at 1 p.m., to be followed at 2 p.m. by an overview of the OFRN. The afternoon program will include presentations by the leadership of the C2PNT and C4ISR COEs and a panel discussion featuring representatives from AFRL Small Business Office, NASA GRC Innovation Office and industry.

The formal program ends at 4:30 p.m. with light appetizers, networking and the presentation of technical displays until 6 p.m. Click here to register.

This series of stories about the Ohio Federal Research Network explores how the organization aligns Ohio’s colleges and universities with the needs of federal agencies to increase research funding, industry collaboration and technology commercialization for job growth and economic development.