News Article

Program helps link education and industry

“Whenever a customer — commercial, industrial or military — wants to use an LCD display in an extreme environment, they come to see us,” says Nicola Dent, chief executive officer of Optical Filters.

Working in both glass and plastic, the company creates windows designed to shield delicate equipment used under challenging circumstances ranging from electro-magnetic emissions to sub-zero temperatures to irate users of automatic-teller machines.

The place customers from throughout North and South American come to find the optical filter of their dreams — transparent heated windows, anyone? Or how about a ATM screen that can’t be viewed from the side? — is Meadville, Pennsylvania. South Mosiertown Road, to be exact, home of Optical Filters USA LLC. The rest of the world heads to the United Kingdom, home of parent company Optical Filters Ltd.

Northwest Pennsylvania is welcoming companies focusing on clean and green technologies, information technology,

advanced manufacturing and life sciences with open arms these days. Optical Filters is just one of an ever-increasing number of partners in a program known as Northwest Pennsylvania Key-stone Innovation Zone.

Linking education with industry is what KIZ is all about. During a recent meet-and-greet at the Bessemer Center, more than 30 representatives of both education and industry in Crawford County met to explore common ground.

Industry partners are eligible for benefits including up to $100,000 in transferable tax credits per year; up to $10,000 in micro-grant for research and development expenses; an internship program; access to research and development teams at regional colleges and universities; site selection, entrepreneurship development and intellectual property rights assistance; and preferential consideration for other programs administered by Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

So far, Optical Filters has participated in two components of the program. They had a student intern last year and also received a $10,000 micro grant on a research program that’s now going into production. “This year, it will generate in excess of $1 million in sales,” said Technical Director Michael Dent, who founded the company in 1988. “We expect within the next five years, that program will be generating $10 million to $15 million dollars in sales.”

The research program was already under way when the micro grant was received. “What the micro grant allowed us to do was investigate some areas of the program we would have had to be more careful about without that funding,” Michael Dent explained. “It was really very helpful.” Needless to say, he’s also looking forward to participating in the tax credit portion of the program.

Optical Fibers isn’t alone.

Ernst Biomass LLC received permits Thursday for a new densification plant in Union Township, The company joined in a collaboration with Allegheny College that Dan Arnett of Ernst Biomass describes as a “win-win” situation for both the company and the interns involved.

Kathy Greeley of Perfor-mance Systems Development described her KIZ intern as “a shining star.”

Tom Wilson of Wilson Energy told how a micro grant allowed him to purchase a piece of energy-measuring equipment that his very young company would never have been able to afford on its own. “We’re looking forward to an opportunity to utilize the tax credits, although we haven’t been able to take advantage of them yet,” he said with a smile. Companies can receive tax credits equal to the annual increase in business up to the maximum.

For entrepreneurs thinking of participating in the KIZ, Michael Dent has a bit of advice. “Think very carefully,” he said, “and when you make the commitment, go all out for it.”

For information about Northwest Pennsylva-nia Keystone Innovation Zone, contact Jason Amory, business development coordinator for the four-county territory including Crawford, Clarion, Mercer and Warren counties, at (814) 677-4800, extension 130.

What's The Difference?

Differences between Keystone Innovation Zones and Keystone Opportunity Zones (From Quick Guide to Business Assistance Programs by Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development).

Purpose:

KIZ: Creation of community/university/public partnerships to generate job growth through technology transfer and entrepreneurship. Focuses around campuses and property around colleges and universities. Zone must be geographically identified with links to institution of higher education.

KOZ: Encouraging business development in designated zones throughout the state by offering significant tax reductions incentives to qualified businesses and residents that locate there.

How funding is used:

KIZ: Grants for zone coordination, strategic planning, personnel costs, hiring of consultants and administration of the zone. Tax credits for companies located in zone must be in operation less than eight years and fall under the zone’s industry sector focus. In northwest Pennsylvania, that focus is on four industry sectors: clean and green technologies, information technology, advanced manufacturing and life sciences.

KOZ: Businesses, property owners and residents located in a KOZ are eligible to receive significant state and local tax benefits.

Funding amounts:

KIZ: $250,000 maximum for the overall program in the first year, declining funding in subsequent years. Must be operational without state funds after three years. $25 million per year in tax credits will be available for KIZ companies. Projects and companies in the KIZ are given priority reviews under various DCED programs.

KOZ: Varied tax abatements.

Kind of support:

KIZ: Grants, tax credits to support innovation grants that will spur technology transfer activities from participating universities.

KOZ: Businesses must either increase full-time employment by 20 percent within the first full year of operation or make a 10 percent capital investment in the zone property based on prior year’s gross revenues. Eligibility for benefits is based upon annual certification. Zones have set expiration dates.