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The field of flexible electronics could bring 1,500 jobs, $75 million in payroll and $100 million in capital to Northeast Ohio by 2017.


CLEVELAND, Ohio — The field of flexible electronics — from flat-panel displays to electronic paper — could bring 1,500 jobs, $75 million in payroll and $100 million in capital to Northeast Ohio by 2017.

At least, that’s the goal set in a plan to be released today by NorTech, a nonprofit focused on developing the region’s high-tech economy. Created through a collaboration between businesses and academics, the plan envisions making Northeast Ohio a hub for development, manufacturing and sales of high-quality, low-cost electronics and components.

The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative estimates that the global market for flexible electronics, which involve layering components on flexible plastic materials, will grow to $250 billion by 2025. NorTech believes that Northeast Ohio could grab a piece of that pie if companies and institutions work together to develop ideas, share skills, seek funding and promote the region.

“We’re just getting started,” cautioned Julian Norley, senior corporate fellow at GrafTech International in Parma. “The exciting thing is just the collaboration. There certainly hasn’t been an effort before to put together this number of companies and universities that are involved in this space.”

In 2006, NorTech linked heavyweights, including American Greetings Corp. and GE Lighting, with universities and up-and-coming businesses under the umbrella of FlexMatters, a loose-knit cluster in a growing field. Now the nonprofit is trying to draw that cohort closer, to create strong roots for the flexible-electronics sector.

“We tried to create a center around (liquid crystal displays) in the early ’70s, and those products were commercialized and manufactured in Asia,” said Rebecca Bagley, NorTech’s president and chief executive. “We’ve been through that.”

But if the region assembles a complete supply chain of flexible-electronics companies, she said, businesses will be more likely to stay here, even as they grow or are acquired. Their products, meanwhile, could span the globe, meeting demand from consumers, the advanced-energy industry, industrial and commercial businesses, health care and the military.

Northeast Ohio isn’t the first place to try to make its name in the flexible-electronics industry. In its 40-page strategic plan, NorTech identifies several competitors, from a research center in the Netherlands to facilities in New York and Arizona. Yet businesses and institutions who helped craft the plan view Northeast Ohio as a contender, based on a wealth of research and development, a wide talent pool and a culture of manufacturing.

Still, NorTech’s report points out two major challenges: Funding — public or private — is hard to find. And FlexMatters has no recognition outside of its members.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Albert Green, chief executive officer of Kent Displays in Kent. “You have companies that are doing work here and end up being successful. That’s the biggest marketing technique and tool.”

Before 2012, NorTech and its partners aim to find new public funding opportunities, connect companies with potential private investors, register 50 new members, promote FlexMatters and launch three joint projects through “cluster sourcing,” a process by which companies will ask each other for help and seek out collaborations.

Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 6:00 AM Plain Dealer