Kent's Liquid Crystal Cluster Creates More Jobs
Liquid crystal displays largely began in Northeast Ohio, and technology insiders are working to boost the technology cluster that surrounds them with more innovation.
LCDs and similar products are set for wider marketability as more uses for liquid crystals are discovered. The research has economic implications since flexible electronics, or electronic devices printed on flexible plastic, are an important growth area for Ohio. The combination of emerging technology and existing products could bring around 1,000 jobs to the state, according to a 2009 study on the state’s technology industry conducted by SRI International.
Technology Brings Jobs
Business leaders and university researchers aren’t content to leave product development times to chance. They’re stepping up to form partnerships that will speed the phases between ideas and final product readiness.
Technology start-ups already offer wider employment. For example, Ohio’s high-tech industries added 19,198 jobs between 2004 and 2008, during the same period all other Ohio industries lost 7,247 jobs, according to a study commissioned by NorTech. Companies producing flexible displays and electronics grew by 86.7 percent during the same period.
Partnerships Speed Up Product Development
Byron Clayton, vice president of NorTech (a nonprofit dedicated to promoting technological growth in the region), says the cluster began growing on its own when liquid crystal display technology was introduced by Kent State University. NorTech, along with local researchers and entrepreneurs, wants to jump-start the natural evolution of the technology cluster by encouraging collaboration.
The company is backing an effort called FlexMatters, which joins Kent State University, the University of Akron, Case Western Reserve University and regional tech companies. Launched in 2006, the initiative has a seven-year goal to add 1,500 jobs, $75 million in payroll and $100 million in capital to Northeast Ohio’s economy.
“NorTech’s role is to convene members together, and we completed the road map so we have a shared vision and drive for that vision,” Clayton says.
Liquid Crystal Innovations
Oleg Lavrentovichm, director of Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute, says researchers at the university continue to develop innovative products. He says companies often don’t have the equipment necessary to develop goods on their own, so they benefit from having the university’s facilities.
“The need is two-fold. First, their products represent the direct result of intellectual property developed at the universities. Second, the manpower of these companies is largely researchers and engineers educated at the university,” Lavrentovichm says.
Kent State researchers currently work on a broad array of new technology that includes everything from a flexible rubber laser to transformation optics that may one day create effects in space such as invisibility cloaking. A recent discovery from Lavrentovichm’s team found greater versatility of liquid crystals, called the "electrophoresis effect." It could help biomedical researchers separate different DNA molecules or provide greater control of the electronic ink used in devices such as Amazon's Kindle.
Quality Is Key to Liquid Crystal Competition
Albert Green, chief executive officer of Kent Displays, says competition with other liquid crystal clusters makes innovation even more important for the region. The company recently introduced the Boogie Board LCD Writing Tablet, a paperless tablet that can be used as an alternative to sketchbooks, memos, dry-erase boards, and other writing and drawing mediums.
“The display industry is no different than many other technology industries that operate on the premise of 'better, faster, cheaper,'" Green says. He wants to ensure area companies stay ahead with quality products. “We must develop the appropriate talent and make the requisite investment in infrastructure, facilities and programs.”
The manufacture and development of the Boogie Board is just one example of how liquid crystal technology creates jobs in the area. Kent Displays doubled its workforce in 2010 with a new manufacturing line that produces the tablet and the addition of many business and technical jobs.
Liquid Crystal Institute
Founding: The LCI was formed in 1965 under the direction of Dr. Glenn H. Brown, who served as its director until he retired in 1983. The Institute was named in Brown’s honor by the Kent State University Board of Trustees in 1986.
Funding: Major grants for the Institute have come from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and U.S. defense agencies.
Location: The new Liquid Crystal and Materials Sciences building was completed in 1996. The three-story facility provides 65,000 gross square feet and includes: classrooms; a 150-seat auditorium; 22,000 square feet of research laboratories for more than 25 individual labs; clean rooms (for creating prototype liquid crystal displays, and training students and technicians in display manufacturing techniques); offices; a display manufacturing line; and associated service and support facilities.
University Partners: The National Science Foundation chose Kent State University, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Akron to serve as Ohio's only Science and Technology Research Center in 1990. ALCOM, the Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials, is an interdisciplinary, national center for advanced research and development of liquid crystal optoelectronic materials, technology and consumer products.