Written by Ronald Cox, Iowa State University College of Engineering Associate Dean for Extension and Outreach
Most Iowans may be unable to credit the source, but I think we’re all relatively familiar with the old quote from Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu about the journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a single step.
For a handful of Iowa plastics and rubber manufacturers, the journey to more prosperous times might have begun with a single day spent recently in an Ames hotel conference room.
Twenty-seven engineers and executives from 17 companies came together April 15 for the first in a series of “Innovation Summits” involving various Iowa industries. Guided by experts from Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), the group spent a day discussing dozens of concepts for new businesses, new products and new ways to prosper.
Details were kept close to most vests for competitive reasons, but several viable ideas appear to have sprung from those around-the-table discussions. After additional work, some may prove incredibly lucrative for companies. Or, perhaps none will.
Regardless, I believe conversations like these ultimately will help Iowans discover new pathways to excellence. Iowa as a whole can reap huge dividends if even one person is prompted to think differently about his or her business and to achieve something new.
This is our role in the economic development corner of Iowa State University: We guide the way. We spark the conversation, and then we work to keep the entrepreneurial fires growing. We believe that healthy businesses are the foundation of healthy communities, and our business is to put university expertise to work.
CIRAS has a 50-year track record of helping Iowa companies perform better. Sometimes, with help university experts, that means we solve engineering or management problems. These days, it increasingly means we help manufacturers develop innovative new products or discover new production methods.
Few places are capable of more bang for the buck than Iowa’s manufacturing industry, which was the largest single chunk of the state economy in 2012 at 16.7 percent of gross domestic product. Many Iowa manufacturing firms are small companies that exist outside the metro areas. They provide good jobs at above-average pay, and they send their products — everything from machine parts to food — to customers beyond Iowa’s borders.
The latest research on Iowa’s rubber and plastics industry — a group of companies that serve mostly as suppliers to other manufacturers — shows that firms here are more productive than their counterparts and can compete on something other than price. That shows that Iowa already has some intrinsic value to what it is producing, and it hints at intriguing possibilities if new products can find their way to the right markets.
It may take months or years before we learn how the ideas launched at the recent summit play out.
In the meantime, CIRAS and ISU remain committed to spreading as much research-proven knowledge as possible to Iowa businesses. There will be four more summits in coming years, covering different industries. Beyond that, CIRAS works regularly with companies around the state to provide everything from government contracting advice to lab testing for troublesome factory parts.
Overall, ISU is making it easier to tap campus expertise. CIRAS is one of five departments that moved in January to ISU’s new Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations. The overarching message here is that ISU takes seriously its mission to serve.
It calls to mind the words of another noted philosopher, albeit in a different context. Former President Ronald Reagan meant it as an insult, once declaring the nine scariest words in the English language to be “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” CIRAS and Iowa State University see nothing scary in that sentence. We can help. We have, for decades. We plan to continue.