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Editorial columns

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, right, chats with plant manager Kevin Fockler during a tour of WaterFurnace Renewable Energy last month.

Entrepreneurs spark Fort Wayne economy

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

During my recent visit to the Fort Wayne area, I had the opportunity to visit several companies and spend time with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who was here to discuss the federal recovery efforts for auto communities and workers.

Manufacturing still has a future in this country, we agreed, but it looks much different than the assembly lines that Henry Ford invented 100 years ago to mass-produce the Model T. Savvy entrepreneurs, like those I met in northeast Indiana, are quietly but surely leading the revolution. Their companies have several features in common.

First, they are high-tech, high-value, innovative and client-driven.

Fort Wayne Metals has been around almost 40 years but has kept pace with the world economy as well as with technology. The company now is the market leader for custom-drawn precision fine wire used in medical products, a dynamic industry. The wires are amazingly small – a third of the size of a human hair.

Shuttleworth, in Huntington, is another example. It specializes in product handling and conveyor solutions, building each one from the ground up. All are custom designed, whether to handle potato chips and pizza or semiconductors and solar panels. Some are designed to inhibit the growth of deadly bacteria from food processing. Some are made for ultra-sensitive environments such as clean rooms.

Shuttleworth also works closely with Purdue’s Technical Assistance Program, a no-cost/low-cost program that connects Indiana companies with Purdue expertise. Recently, for example, a professor in the Purdue College of Technology worked with the company to implement a new meat packaging line.

In the past several years, this Purdue program has helped Fort Wayne-area businesses solve problems and seize opportunities more than three dozen times.

Second, while these companies are based in the Fort Wayne area, they embrace the global economy. Fort Wayne Metals has a facility in Castelbar, Ireland. Shuttleworth has sales offices in Kuala Lumpur plus a production facility in Belgium for 30 years to serve the European Union marketplace.

In fact, Indiana already is a growing hub in the global economy, ranking 14th in the nation in export shipments of merchandise in 2008. These exports tallied $26.5 billion, up 38 percent over 2004. This global economy reaches into every Indiana city and town, and Fort Wayne businesses are making it work for them.

Third, the businesses have aggressive internship programs.

Fort Wayne Metals has 22 college interns at work, including many from Purdue and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. TrustBearer Labs, the world’s leading expert on cybersecurity, considers interns essential.

David Corcoran, TrustBearer president and founder, studied at Purdue with Gene Spafford, a top international expert on cybersecurity. Corcoran’s company leverages his expertise with cryptography for applications in identity assurance with smart cards and biometrics. This is a business of the future, and it requires a specialized workforce.

Yet Corcoran said it can be hard to compete against Microsoft and Apple for talented university graduates. Instead, TrustBearer partners with the Purdue-administered Interns for the Indiana program. College students who intern here see firsthand Fort Wayne’s vibrant cultural environment, safe neighborhoods, excellent schools and short commutes, not to mention a low cost of living. They experience the value, and then it’s much easier to get them to stay.

Sponsored by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Interns for Indiana is open to all Indiana businesses. The state also benefits: Interns have a much higher probability of electing to work in Indiana after graduating.

Lastly, the Fort Wayne community has a significant asset in IPFW and efforts like the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, which are helping these companies create an economic future, find their niche in emerging industries and think globally. They tap the know-how of their universities and attract their graduates. And they are right here in Fort Wayne.

France A. Córdova is president of Purdue University. She wrote this for Fort Wayne newspapers.