Ohio Tech Hub to Invest in Sustainable Polymer R&D

Hub Official: ‘Flexible Packaging Is Very High on a Lot of Our Innovators’ Minds’

Ohio Tech Hub to Invest in Sustainable Polymer R&D
Digital Exclusive

In October, the federal government designated more than two dozen technology hubs around the U.S. where it expects to invest billions of dollars in research and development. The list included many of the usual R&D suspects, ranging from advanced manufacturing to renewable energy to artificial intelligence.

But nestled among them was a tech hub focused on sustainable polymers, centered in Akron, Ohio, home to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. However, leaders of the hub say their goals are not limited to the chief ingredient in tires. 

They aim to address a variety of polymers, including plastics, as they search for more sustainable materials and processes. That, in turn, could lead to breakthroughs applicable to flexible packaging, the hub’s leaders say.

“Flexible packaging is very high on a lot of our innovators’ minds,” says Brian Anderson, vice president of the Polymer Industry Cluster at the Greater Akron Chamber, which is leading the region’s tech hub effort.

Participants include universities, research centers, local governments, and economic development agencies, as well as companies such as Avery Dennison, Avient, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Parker Hannifin, and Synthomer.

Betting on Regional Innovation

The federal tech hub program is authorized by the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022, a federal law whose other provisions focus on developing the U.S. semiconductor industry.

Overseen by the Economic Development Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the $10 billion program is designed to spur regional innovation on various fronts. Prospective tech hubs applied for the designations, which were given in fall 2023 to 31 hubs, including the one in Akron.

Other designees include a Philadelphia hub focused on precision medicine, a Chicago hub focused on quantum computing, a South Florida hub focused on climate resilience, and a Nevada hub researching lithium batteries and other materials for electric vehicles.

Once they are designated, hubs are invited to apply in early 2024 for between $40 million and $70 million in funding each.

Ahead of the grant application deadline, leaders of the Akron hub have been collaborating to identify potential projects, says Anderson. They could involve bringing late-stage technologies to fruition, honing new approaches to the recycling and reuse of materials, and finding alternatives to polymers derived from fossil fuels.

“It’s not just a matter of developing materials that are less toxic or lower carbon-emitting,” Anderson says. “They also have to be economical … We have to create sustainable solutions that are less expensive than what’s on the market today.”

The work is time-consuming and capital-intensive. But, he says, “that’s why I think programs like this tech-hub opportunity are maybe uniquely able to make those solutions possible.”

Not Just Rubber

Goodyear opened its first tire factory in Akron in the late 19th century. From that beginning, the region’s expertise evolved over time to cover a range of polymers, including plastics.

Indeed, polymers are now the largest industry cluster in Ohio, with more than 2,800 companies employing more than 140,000 people—roughly 40% of whom are in northeastern Ohio, the region that includes Akron.

The sustainable polymers tech hub aims to address two broad needs for the industry, according to Suzanne B. Bausch, Ph.D., vice president for research and business engagement at the University of Akron in Ohio.

One is to create better, more sustainable materials. The other, longer-term goal is to develop more effective systems for collecting, reusing, and recycling materials.

“Right now, a lot of plastics don’t get recycled,” says Bausch. And it’s not just bottles and packaging. “They are found in just about everything we touch. So, it’ll be very helpful to be able to move that entire realm of products into a more sustainable phase.”

As a participant in the tech hub, the university plans to focus on areas such as research, entrepreneurship, and workforce development, Bausch says. “There’s a whole slew of workforce talent that’s needed to run a polymer company. What we want to focus on is the sustainability piece,” she adds.

That might include, for example, professionals who can analyze the life cycle of materials, as well as chemists to invent new ones and engineers to design processes for manufacturing them.

Picking Up the Pace

For Synthomer, the tech hub offers an opportunity to speed up business innovation, says Robin Harrison, vice president of platform technology and external innovation for the London-based company. Synthomer, which has its U.S. headquarters in Beachwood, Ohio, makes specialty polymers and chemicals for many markets.

“We have a lot of self-funded research that we do,” he says. “But by participating in the tech hub with other industries in the area, our hope is that we accelerate the programs that we have in-house while working with other experts that have similar issues.”

Some of the company’s existing research efforts, for example, are developing polymers that could help make flexible packaging more recyclable. The efforts flow from Synthomer’s 2022 purchase of the adhesives resins business Eastman Chemicals. Its products include modifiers and additives for polypropylene and polyethylene, ingredients in films for flexible packaging.

But just as important as the spirit of innovation is the spirit of collaboration that the tech hub represents.

“What’s really been refreshing and kind of exciting about the creation of the tech hub is it facilitates open communication across many businesses that have a common underlying technical capability,” Harrison says. “That, I think, is going to lead to innovative ideas that otherwise we wouldn’t come up with working within our own individual silos.”

Joel Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in York, Pennsylvania.