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Akron selected as regional tech hub for sustainable polymers

A statue paying tribute to rubber workers, created by sculptor Alan Cottrill, is seen in Downtown Akron.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron has been selected as a regional tech hub, which will position the city as a leader in sustainable polymers.

Akron has been selected as a regional technology and innovation hub, one that will lead the production of sustainable polymers, according to the White House.

The city has a deep history with the rubber industry, which took root in Akron in 1870. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and the Goodrich Corporation all got their start in Akron, lending to the city's nickname, the "Rubber City." In recent years, Akron has been trying to capitalize on its history with the rubber industry to become the hub for sustainable polymers.

“Akron is at the cutting edge of polymer research and innovation,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a statement.

The city was selected as part of the CHIPS and Science Act, which created the Department of Commerce's Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program. The program aims to drive regional technology growth by strengthening manufacturing and commercialization.

Akron is one of 31 hubs selected from a pool of 500 applicants. The designation allows the city to compete for an implementation award based on its development plan, which will be announced in the spring. Five to ten hubs will be selected for implementation awards of $20 million to $70 million. The University of Akron and the Greater Akron Chamber, both partners in the city's Polymer Industry Cluster initiative, were awarded a $400,000 strategic development grant to design the plan.

This designation is an acknowledgement of the city's efforts, President Joe Biden's Advisor on Science and Technology Arati Prabhakar said.

"This is about a region coming together to bring together the people who understand those markets, understand the research and development, understand what it takes to train people for all the different kinds of jobs that the next generation of sustainable plastics is going to offer," Prabhakar said.

Biden recognized Akron in a press conference on Monday.

"In the Ohio hub, businesses and universities are going to come together to develop sustainable plastic and rubber technology that can be produced with fewer emissions and able to be recycled," Biden said.

The Polymer Industry Cluster spearheaded by the Greater Akron Chamber has taken on the mission of advancing the city's polymer industry for years.

“It’s exciting to see progress in the work we’ve done with our industry and economic development partners over the last couple years to double down on our region’s legacy in polymers to create a new future for advanced materials that are both functional and sustainable," Greater Akron Chamber President and CEO Steve Millard said in a statement. "Being selected for the designation and strategy development grant is both validating for our work and another step toward investing in our region’s future."

President Joe Biden stands behind a podium in front of a screen showcasing different tech hubs across the country.
President Joe Biden announced 31 tech hubs across the country on Oct. 23, 2023.

The national attention could bring further economic development to the city, said Brian Anderson, the regional innovation officer for the Sustainable Polymers Tech Hub.

“From a financial standpoint, it’s also a step in the direction of securing catalytic investment for our region," Anderson said.

Being on the national stage could bring more business to the city, too, Anderson added.

"I think the more that we can highlight the important applications of polymers, the more interest we'll see in not only workers, but in investors and in businesses," Anderson said.

The designation builds on the city’s efforts to become the “Polymer Valley." The Polymer Industry Cluster initiative was founded to increase collaboration in the polymer industry to catalyze economic growth in the region, according to the Greater Akron Chamber. More than 40 companies, institutions of higher education and economic development organizations have partnered to support the initiative's goal and have been working to win investment from state and federal agencies.

"And you add to that the, I think we have about 500 polymer manufacturing companies in Northeast Ohio, so we have a lot of really strong pieces here," Anderson said.

The University of Akron plans to continue supporting polymer research, Vice President of Research and Business Engagement Sue Bausch said.

"We're going to continue to do that and partner even more closely with industry than we already do," Bausch said.

UA is also planning to bolster workforce development for the polymer industry, Bausch said.

"There's also a really big workforce development piece and a talent pipeline, and as a university, of course, we help provide that to industry," Bausch said. "And so we'll be a big part of that as well."

Bausch said she thinks this could be an economic boon for the city, especially if the hub wins the next round of grant money.

"Our designation as a tech hub and the awarding of a development grant both affirms this great history and ensures our continuation as a national leader in polymer and advanced materials research, education, training and technology innovation," UA President Gary Miller said in a statement. "The University of Akron, which is ranked number one in the world for polymer science and plastics engineering, is excited to continue this work with our partners."

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.