Dr. West referred to his second slide, which showed the LCD digital wristwatch when it was first made, and pre-LCD televisions. “Think about companies that made TVs at that point. You won’t buy them from those companies today. It is the companies that had the patience and the diligence to see a new technology and to stick with it long enough to walk up the manufacturing curve. When that tipping point came, it was too late. I think we have an opportunity in RTR manufacturing, particularly if we have a few more years, to be quite a way down that innovation curve. We are the first doing the manufacturing. Our companies are learning how to do yields, put the product out into the marketplace at a low cost, manufacturing know-how that will be the basis of this industry. A window of opportunity is open, and we could seize this industry.”
Dr. Clayton agreed that the market for flexible electronics was still “pre-demand. The bulk of the demand has not hit yet. But when it hits, people will be looking for which companies have the knowledge to actually manufacture these products. We want them to end up here.”
A questioner asked whether the flexible electronics companies represented on the panel were joint ventures with the universities, and how the growth of the companies had been financed. Dr. Green said that Kent Displays raised early funding from many sources, primarily Manning Ventures, a VC firm in Rochester, New York. The company is now owned primarily by Manning Ventures, with Kent State University a small minority owner.
Dr. Taheri said that AlphaMicron was not a joint venture with the university, although it was affiliated with it, and it does not have venture capital funding. “We actually raise funding and sell products,” he said.
A Need for ‘Patience and Continued Investment’
Dr. Harris asked Dr. West if any valuable lessons had been learned from the first time Ohio missed the “inflection point” of the information technology boom. And he asked the panel more generally how the U.S. could compete with, for example, Taiwan, where the government simply invests in a technology if it wants to capture a market. Dr. West said several lessons had been learned. He said he had worked in two different industries, learning two different lessons. The first was the compact disc industry, where “a revolution happened overnight,” and major companies took over the industry in a year or two. The second was the LCD industry, where there were many opportunities in small markets, niche markets, and unexpected applications developed over the course of 40 years.” He said he thought the flexible electronics industry would follow this second course, “and I think we have to have that patience and continued investment.”
Dr. Taheri agreed, and said that what was holding the industry back now was “purely money. We’re bootstrapping our way to get there, starting with niche markets. If there were a concerted effort to say this is important, I think you’d be surprised at how fast you could grow and what you could dominate.”