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Northeast Ohio riding the wave of a rising water-tech cluster

MAR Systems lab technician
MAR Systems lab technician - Bob Perkoski
During the 1960s, Cleveland's waterways received the kind of national attention that no city wants. Lake Erie had become extremely polluted due in part to the heavy industry that lined its shores. The Cuyahoga River caught fire later in the decade, a searing image that brought Cleveland years of negative publicity and bad jokes.

The burning river and noxious lake are part of Northeast Ohio's past. Cleveland is now trying to build its future around a Great Lake and a busy river. Proximity to these resources has given rise to a burgeoning water technology industry cluster that H20 advocates believe will be paramount to the region's ongoing redevelopment.

The region's legacy in purifying industrial waste water has dovetailed nicely into an increasing global need for water technology solutions, says Byron Clayton, vice president at NorTech. The regional technology-based economic development organization has created a "roadmap" to accelerate job growth and economic impact in Northeast Ohio's water technology industry.

"We know a lot about pollution, and have done a world-class job in cleaning it up," says Clayton. "Around the world there are industrialized countries facing the same problems. Other places need this type of know-how and we can provide it."

NorTech has identified three sectors in its efforts to make Northeast Ohio a water-centric Silicon Valley: Automation and controls manage industrial water processing systems; "sorbents" remove heavy metals, hydrocarbons or other organic contaminants from water; and corrosion resistance lives up to its name by using coatings and other materials to prevent break down of water system equipment.

The local water tech cluster has 54 organizations and companies accounting for approximately 338 employees and $72 million in annual revenue. According to NorTech's water-tech roadmap, the region will continue to build its infrastructure alongside high-potential commercialization projects, to the tune of 3,500 new jobs by 2019.

While NorTech seeks to accelerate the cluster process, the overall effort is being promoted by Alliance for our Water Future. The new nonprofit acts as a steward for freshwater issues locally and globally. Aiming to solve those problems are founding members NorTech, Case Western Reserve University, the Port of Cleveland and others.

The team effort is helping the region make a splash in the industry both domestically and internationally, Clayton maintains. Megacorporations Sherwin Williams and Rockwell Automation, for example, have assets all over the world. Then there's the smaller entities like MAR Systems and ABS Materials, which may not be household names, but hold the key to Northeast Ohio's future water-tech success.

"The cluster concept is built on collaboration," says Clayton. "Job growth comes when smaller companies take off. You can have a small company with great tech that partners up (with a large company) and is given access to market channels, and that small company grows 20 times its size."

ABS Materials CEO/co-founder Stephen Spoonamore likes having 120 cubic miles of Great Lake in his backyard. His Wooster-based company provides solutions for clean and affordable water through Osorb, a type of patented glass that rapidly swells to absorb herbicides, pesticides, oils and other water contaminants.

A recent job had ABS Materials exporting its product to clean up oil-contaminated groundwater following a pipeline leak in Idaho. The company also works with industries to rid production waters of harmful chemicals, and sanitizes stormwater systems at half the price of a processing plant.

"Industrial facilities and airports have runoffs like de-icer fluids that carry complicated chemistries," says Spoonamore. "We're very good at destroying those chemistries."

ABS Materials was a three-person operation when it was founded in 2008. The company now has 52 employees who have helped garner $2 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2013 alone. ABS Materials wares can be found in Asia, South America and 13 U.S. states.

"Last year, 94 percent of our product was shipped out of state," reports Spoonamore. "We expect that number to reach almost 100 percent this year. (The glass) is a value-added product that attracts money to the region."

Exponential company growth has derived from need. The famous idiom may say otherwise, but in fact oil and water do mix. Separating the two is difficult, as is ridding a water system of atrazine, a widely-used herbicide. The innovative glass product invented by ABS Materials  co-founder Dr. Paul L. Edmiston "is light years ahead of any other system," Spoonamore says.  This claim is backed by the company's numerous science awards, as well as its placement on the Forbes Magazine list of the "most promising" privately-owned U.S. companies.

Collaborating with the local water tech cluster was an easy transition for ABS Materials, says its co-founder. The company is currently partnering with a local firm that builds water automation and control systems, and another that constructs non-degradable mixing vessels for the mining industry.

Working together has motivated water cluster members to market their collaborations at industry events. "Northeast Ohio is a brand, not just separate companies," says Spoonamore. "We are a one-stop shop for this work, which gives us an edge selling to a global marketplace. Ohio makes stuff and we're proud of it."

With an estimated 6 quadrillion gallons of fresh water filling the Great Lakes, the region won't run out of material to work with, says Missy Hayes, director of business development for industrial water purification company MAR Systems.

MAR Systems removes mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals from water through its trademarked "Sorbster" technology. The EPA-approved tech is a granular media that mercury and other toxic chemicals bond to, making for safe disposal of water.

The company has 11 employees at its Solon office, and a manufacturing lab cooking up new technologies just across the street.

The water treatment industry is full of technologies that can disrupt fragile ecosystems. Not only does Sorbster work faster than current products, notes Hayes, the bonding property of the tech ensures minimal environmental impact.

Put simply, "you just pour water on our media and it comes out clean on the other side," she says. "Its ease of use means our clients don't have to spend millions to clean their water."

MAR Systems, founded in 2008, currently has about 200 clients, from coal-fired power plants to companies that wash their trucks with chemical-laden sprays. Distribution of Sorbster and other commercial applications are spread across the country, with plans to expand globall in the near future . Expansion has been both fast and slow, notes Hayes, as MAR Systems often has long lead times on sales. If all goes well, the company will double its $7 to $12 million in annual revenue.

The region's water-logged footprint is only getting bigger thanks to the collaborative effort pushed by groups like NorTech and Alliance for our Water Future, says Hayes. NorTech's roadmap, in particular, drew attention from venture capitalists who recognized just how large the local water-tech space was becoming.

"There's a legacy (in Northeast Ohio) of products and services in this space," says NorTech's Clayton. "The more companies collaborating, the easier it is to get a product to market."

Proximity to an enormous fresh water source will be a long-standing asset for the region as mining, industrial and engineering needs continue to evolve, Clayton says. If Northeast Ohio continues to leverage the knowledge gleaned through decades of water clean up, the region can ride high on the crest of that economic wave for generations to come.

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

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