Officials: It could prove catalyst for growth

by Heidi Prescott

SOUTH BEND — When researchers are ready in about five years to start making models of a device to replace computer chips, South Bend area officials plan to be ready.

Ready to attract and assist labs, manufacturers and ancillary small businesses.

Ready to add jobs, perhaps thousands of jobs.

And leaders want to be ready to pursue and capitalize on potential economic avenues from the nanoelectronics research center led by the University of Notre Dame.

News of the Midwest Academy for Nanoelectronics and Architectures on Tuesday electrified economic development agents who see the center and its future spin-offs as a catalyst for big-time regional growth.

Not a single project or business, not the rolled steel plants in New Carlisle or the Hummer plant, can compare to the imaginable impact on future area jobs and business.

“This has so much potential to cross all aspects of our community that I don’t think anything can hold a candle to it,” Project Future Executive Director Pat McMahon said about the economic benefits.

“I don’t think we will be the same community 20 years from now in what drives our community’s economy, jobs and wealth creation,” he said. "We have been a manufacturing town that has made some transitions, but we don’t want to be stuck in the past.

“If this doesn’t happen, we only have ourselves to blame.”

Economic development avenues range from new research laboratories that develop prototypes to tool manufacturers, and the support mechanisms and small business ventures needed to support them. McMahon hopes initiatives are moving forward in the next few months, identifying strategies to capture jobs and business activity generated by the researchers.

The effort starts immediately.

Economic growth occurred after the northeast center opened in Albany, N.Y., and it should happen in northern Indiana, said Jeff Welser, director of the nanoelectronics research initiative on assignment from tech giant IBM.

“These centers are all about setting the stage for the future of electronics,” Welser said. "Indiana is now the Midwest center for this work. You guys are the Midwest.

“Albany ended up pulling in partner companies on their own. They’re pulling in tool manufacturers and startups that want to come in where there is a hub of research, and 1,000 jobs were created in their community. Whether it will be exactly what happens in South Bend, I can’t say. But you have all the right ingredients,” he said, adding how the city of South Bend and state of Indiana stepped forward with tremendous support for their technology endeavors.

Midwest research center

The Midwest center joins other nanoelectronics centers in Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles. The thought of South Bend serving as a regional research hub hadn’t entered community leaders minds a year ago. Rather, most people believed that Notre Dame might become more engaged in the works at the three other centers, McMahon said.

“It is an advantage we are going to have that is unique to three other places in the United States,” he said. “It will happen over several years, so we have time to do homework and capture activity off this. We have issues to work through and there will be some big challenges. But we’re in the game and at the table.”

Six big technology companies, including IBM, Intel and Texas Instruments, comprise the larger nanoelectronics consortium. Such companies as IBM and TI plan to start sending what they refer to as “assignees” very soon to guide the research led by Notre Dame professors and students. Purdue University and other schools are also involved in the Midwest center.

“We’ll be sending people there fairly often for planning meetings and reviews,” said Bob Doering, senior fellow at TI and Nanoelectronics Research Initiative governing council member. Such visits should have an immediate impact on the local economy, considering visitors require housing, food and other goods and services.

Five to 10 years away

But the researchers and community leaders acknowledge that the larger economic implications could be five to 10 years away.

“I would say that as far as the industrial research community for the high-tech industry, this really puts your region much more squarely at the forefront of the excitement,” Doering said. “But you probably won’t see big new factories coming out of this in the next five years unless there is a very surprising breakthrough.”

McMahon breathes a sigh of relief when he talks about the time frame; he said there’s a lot to do to prepare for business recruitment as well as the potential magnitude of such an unrivaled opportunity backed by such large players.

“We are not here saying, ‘Gosh, maybe a new industry will show up.’ The industry is a trillion dollar industry already,” McMahon said.

“If you want the community to move forward and have it be every bit as strong as it was during the heyday in manufacturing, you’ll do everything you can to make this successful. It’s not a game we have played before, but the opportunity to play is here.

“This is worth getting excited about.”

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