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Q&A: OU Innovation Center chief talks about why region is a great place to live and work

Jennifer Simon, Director of the Ohio University Innovation Center. Photos | Ben French
Jennifer Simon, Director of the Ohio University Innovation Center. Photos | Ben French

Since its formation in 1983, Ohio University's Innovation Center has nurtured more than 80 companies, creating more than 1,000 jobs. The university itself has helped develop nine spinoff companies from university-invented technology. And faculty and staff are responsible for the startup of another 27 companies. Today, the OU Innovation Center -- the state's first university-small business incubator -- is home to 13 startups with big plans for the future. hiVelocity recently caught up with Center Director Jennifer Simon to find out what gives southeastern Ohio its entrepreneurial chemistry.

Ohio's economic landscape's been changing quite a bit -- some of the older industries are struggling a little bit, new industry's springing up. How has that changed the focus of what the Innovation Center does?

It really hasn't changed it. We have stayed on course as we support the main focuses that we have here: information technology, biosciences and alternative and sustainable energy. Those have been our focuses for a number of years. In addition, we have a number of companies around transportation technology that are here, and so we haven't strayed. Within each industry there's been some change, but we're here to support all of it, and we've been able to keep up and adapt services and facilities to meet the needs.

A lot of times when people talk about entrepreneurial activities around the state we hear about what's happening in the larger metropolitan areas. What about your part of the state makes it a good place to start or grow a business?

We're a very diverse region, first of all. When you have northeast Ohio, you have a sort of a hub of organizations and technologies that are there. When they're a small fish in a big pond in Columbus (for example), here they're made to feel that they are a really big deal. There's capital available here, TechGrowth Ohio  (an Ohio Third Frontier program that provides resources to early-stage, technologically-innovative companies in southeastern Ohio), and we have angel investor networks as part of our area. We have a number of technical providers in the region. And the economic development organizations that are not only in Athens, but in surrounding counties, are strong and work together in order to create an even greater economic development presence. So if we can't meet a need here in Athens County, we work with Meigs County, for example, if they have a facility that works.

I had a conversation back in the fall with (an Athens CEO) who said he could have moved his company anywhere in Ohio, but he wanted to stay in Athens. Is that a common sentiment?

Actually, it is. When people come into our community and our region, you find that they are welcomed and their kids have a nice place to go to school and all kinds of activities to keep them engaged, especially in Athens with the cultural opportunities that are out there. And so when people like (that) get ingrained into the community, they don't want to leave. Sometimes people worry about coming into small communities -- am I going to be viewed as an outsider? We don't operate that way. It really, truly is a place where people can feel welcomed. (Also), we have a tremendous amount of recreational outdoor opportunities for people here. Everything from kayaking to mountain biking. On a number of levels from a quality-of-life perspective (people) feel like this is a great place to grow their family and to retire. There's a regional flavor that's here, and our convention and visitors bureau and a couple of other organizations really promote that. A term that a lot of people throw around is that we're a rural cosmopolitan area. 

What economic development activities in your part of the state excite you or encourage you?

One case that I think is really lining us up for the future is the completion of U.S. 33, the corridor going up to Columbus. It's easier for company executives to fly in and out. It really is going to have a big impact. I look at things like the Hocking College Energy Institute in Hocking County and what they're doing, which is training people to be in alternative energy industries like solar and wind and biofuels, and they also are working to attract companies that need these kinds of people. TechGrowth Ohio . . . works with the OSU South Centers located in Pike County, at their Endeavor Center. They're working on priming the pump, getting businesses in that don't really think they are technology centers but really are. Muskinghum County has an incredible incubator. It's been open a couple of years, but they are really cranking it up, and the companies are actually getting funded and taking off and doing good things. Backing that up, I mentioned the pre-seed funds and the angel funds that are available, that is something we didn't have before.

I wonder what you see as the growth area for the incubator and the general region in the next couple of years.

Well, right now at the Innovation Center we're doing an initiative in drug discovery. We currently have two companies . . . and we have research coming from the university working on creating those companies. And that initiative in particular is to purchase a large number of pieces of equipment that can be shared by the companies and using that as an attraction tool . . . and to back it up with scientists and others who can help (companies) set up their labs. Another piece that we're working on is a creation of a research and technology park. We're incubating people, and we're having people come out of the incubator successfully, and we're working on creating a park that would be a fantastic place to land that provides all the amenities that they need. I also believe we've seen an uptick in the number of faculty members that are doing energy-related projects. We have some of the best and the brightest here.

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