Sen. Portman Talks Jobs During Visit To OU’s Innovation Center

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U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, took a tour of Ohio University’s Innovation Center on Friday morning to get a glimpse into how the university is working with entrepreneurs to create innovative jobs in the area.

Jennifer Simon, director of the Innovation Center, told Portman that the university-run business incubator, which focuses on technology and biomedicine businesses and research, has a very high success rate with its businesses.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” Simon said. “We’re at capacity right now.”

Simon noted that the incubator has housed 125 companies since it was created in 1983. Not only does the facility provide space for start-up companies at a low cost, but also connects companies with start-up capital they need to get off the ground through university programs and venture partners.

Joe Shields, OU vice president for research and creative activity, cited Diagnostic Hybrids Inc. as a success story to come out of the Innovation Center. He said there was some concern, when the business was purchased by San Diego-based Quidel in the past few years, that jobs would be moved out of Ohio. However, he said the company has actually moved jobs from California to the Buckeye State.

“Ohio provides a hospitable environment,” Shields told the senator.

Portman toured the Innovation Center and spoke to several of the tenants about their companies, including Rico Sagardia of Razor Dynamics. The company is working to create navigation programs for smartphones. Sagardia even let the senator try Google Glass, a wearable computer, with which he has been working.

The senator also learned about Ecolibrium Solar, which creates lightweight plastic solar panel mounting systems for large, flat roofs that don’t require puncturing the facilities (which can lead to flooding and structure damage to roofs). E3 Clean Technology showcased its products that help reduce emissions on vehicles and remove ammonia and hydrogen from wastewater.

John Diles and Diane McVey, owners of the business Livewires, showed Portman their custom-made noise canceling headphones that can protect the ears of users while providing top-notch audio.

Portman even got a look at the Innovation Center’s 3-D printer. McVey said that her company hopes to utilize applications like the 3-D printer in the future to allow for customers to have ear impressions for headphones created within a few days instead of the two-week process the company uses now.

Following his tour, Portman said, “This is one of the great incubators in the country and it happens to be right here in Ohio. This is a great example of where a great university in Ohio is actually helping to create jobs through commercializing some of the research that’s being done, but also taking advantage of the fact that you have a lot of smart students who are here, who are entrepreneurial, and this gives them a chance to get started with something.”

Portman said he wants to help the Innovation Center secure federal funding to expand the facility to include more offices and light manufacturing. He also stated that he’d like to see some federal laws changed to make it easier for small companies to accumulate start-up funds.

“It was a great visit. It was inspiring and it’s nice to come home to Ohio and see great things going on. Washington gets a little frustrating sometimes. And this an example of something really good that’s happening in our community that will help to create jobs well beyond Athens,” he said.

The senator said the federal government needs to continue its commitment to some basic research.

“One reason I voted for the budget agreement was I felt strongly that we needed to provide some budget guidelines and … provide funding to universities and other research institutions. Other countries are doing more than we are frankly, and I’m concerned that the United States is starting to fall behind — and that basic research pays off in huge ways,” Portman said.

He added that the nation’s education system also needs to be improved, particularly when it comes to the STEM disciplines.

“Those are the disciplines that are really needed right now: science, technology, engineering, math…” Portman said.

He continued, “We just need to have a more innovative economy by tax reform, regulatory relief, better approaches to energy, which is a huge opportunity for us here in Ohio and all around the country. That’s why I do believe that Washington needs to reform some of the basic institutions, the way we do things…”

Portman added that he is disappointed in the December unemployment numbers that were released on Friday, which showed that 74,000 jobs were created.

“The unemployment rate went down, but it went down for all the wrong reasons,” he remarked. “It went down because hundreds of thousands left the workforce and we now have the highest number of people out of the workforce that we’ve had since 1978. It’s something called the labor participation rate and you want that to be high. That’s when you have a more productive economy.

“The numbers today are really discouraging. I’d hoped they’d be better, but instead we have record numbers of people who are long-term unemployed,” he continued. “Part of the answer is what we’re seeing here today to create more innovation, more entrepreneurship, create more opportunities. With that will come not just more jobs, but better jobs and better benefits.”

Portman also met with OU President Roderick McDavis and visited with culinary students at Hocking College during his visit to the area on Friday.