Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Fort Wayne Metals, located on Ardmore Avenue, has signed on to the Innovation District at Electric Works.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Spooling machines used to spin metal wire onto spools used for medical devices developed by Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Spooling machines used to spin metal wire onto spools used for medical devices developed by Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Spools of metal wire used for medical devices developed by Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Spools of metal wire used for medical devices developed by Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Vann Wallstrom

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Spooling machines used to spin metal wire onto spools used for medical devices developed by Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette The factory floor of Fort Wayne Metals at their facility on Ardmore Avenue on Friday, July 28, 2019.  

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Dr. Michael Mirro, in the Mirro Center on the Parkview North Campus.

Sunday, July 07, 2019 1:00 am

Electric Works creating optimism

Innovation District designed for ideas to break through

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

When innovators meet, conversations follow a familiar script.

“What are you working on?” they ask each other. After listening intently, they typically remark: “I know a guy you should talk to. Let me put you in touch.”

Those conversations can happen by accident but don't have to, says RTM Ventures, the partnership putting together a deal to remake the former General Electric campus into a mixed-used development. The first phase is projected to cost $248 million, a combination of private and public money. 

A key component of Electric Works is a 72,000-square-foot Innovation District, a space designed to encourage those seemingly random but oh-so-valuable encounters to happen more often.

In many ways, success of the entire 700,000-square-foot first phase depends on whether developers can assemble a robust roster of tenants for the Innovation District. The potential payoff is a return to Fort Wayne's heyday, when inventions including the television and magnet wire – a component in all motors – were created.

Leasing commitments have already been made by the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, the Indiana University Research Technology Corp., Fort Wayne Metals Research Products Corp. and Medical Informatics Engineering.

RTM Ventures is working to sign enough long-term leases with established businesses and organizations to satisfy bankers' requirements. Lenders want to see at least 330,000 of the 700,000-square-foot total spoken for before signing on the deal, which is the final step before closing.

Giving back

Crystal Vann Wallstrom, Electric Works' managing director of innovation, has been pitching the Innovation District's merits to business leaders throughout the region for more than 11/2 years.

“Right now, all the innovation happens on individual (corporate, nonprofit and university) campuses,” she said.

Vann Wallstrom isn't asking companies to move entire research and development teams to Electric Works. But, she argues, a smaller group assigned to the Innovation District could create value in unexpected ways.

Mark Michael, Fort Wayne Metals' president, is counting on that.

Michael traces his time with the manufacturer to the days when it employed just seven hearty souls. Today, its workforce tops 1,300.

“In the time I've spent here, we've had so many mentors,” he said, recalling local business leaders willing to offer free advice. “So many people have stepped up. Everybody has been so helpful in our success.”

Now, Fort Wayne Metals wants to give back by adding its knowledge to the pool that could produce new products, updated methods and – with any luck – more high-paying jobs.

Michael is open to whatever that looks like. The Innovation District's overall success is more important than the fate of any individual project, he said.

Adding value

For now, Michael is focusing on additive manufacturing, a manufacturing method that is disrupting the industry and could potentially put some people out of work.

Tool and die shops throughout northeast Indiana employ machine operators who start with a solid block of raw material and carefully cut away pieces until it meets customers' specifications. That's called subtractive manufacturing because it involves removing what's not needed, and it has been the industry standard for decades.

New technology allows companies to start with nothing and build a component that meets precise design criteria. Think of 3D printers, for example. That's additive manufacturing.

Michael said high school and middle school students looking to go into tomorrow's factories need an opportunity to learn the new methods with hands-on classes. Fort Wayne Metals hopes to make that possible with its involvement in Electric Works. Fort Wayne Metals doesn't do additive manufacturing but sells wire to companies that do, Michael said.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has committed to lease about 26,000 square feet of renovated classroom space, where it plans to open a new high school that would offer half-day STEAM opportunities for up to 300 juniors and seniors, 150 students in the morning and 150 in the afternoon. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math.

At least two additive manufacturing training facilities already exist in the U.S., but Michael believes additional sites could focus on different aspects of the technology and help local workers train for good careers. One additive engineer opening posted on CareerBuilder last week included an estimated annual salary of $160,000.

'At the edges'

Opportunities also exist for college students and alumni.

Tony Armstrong, president and CEO of the Indiana University Research and Technology Corp., said his organization was created to commercialize student and faculty research. 

Their philosophy is that “important discoveries shouldn't be confined to academic journals and conferences.” The public can benefit from research that has been commercialized, the organization's website says.

The Research and Technology Corp. committed to Electric Works because it wants to drive innovation in northeast Indiana by working with entrepreneurs and IU alumni living in the region.

Although IU campuses have researchers working on artificial intelligence, health care, pharmaceuticals and cybersecurity, their singular focus can be a drawback, Armstrong said.

“Where innovation happens is sort of at the edges of these disciplines,” he said, adding that scientists working with information technology experts would be an example. “You look at it with a different set of eyes.”

The Research and Technology Corp. leases space in some other innovation districts in the state, including ones in Bloomington and Indianapolis. The physical design of spaces is important in encouraging close encounters between innovators, Armstrong said.

“It's those collisions, when people bump into each other at coffee or over lunch,” he said. “It really becomes this hub of activity.”

But Armstrong believes another factor is even more important: scheduled events, such as guest speakers and training opportunities.

“It's really the programming and events, that's the secret sauce where you meet people,” he said. “That's the reason to be there.”

Ideally, Armstrong said, so much would be happening at Electric Works' Innovation District that people would be afraid to miss even one day there for fear of missing out.

“We're anxious to see it move forward,” Armstrong said of Electric Works. “It's transformative.”

'The tipping point'

Dr. Michael Mirro is another enthusiastic supporter.

Parkview's chief academic and research officer sees such potential in the Innovation District that late last month he co-hosted a breakfast to promote the venture to regional leaders.

The breakfast included representatives from Purdue University's Fort Wayne and West Lafayette campuses, the University of Notre Dame, Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, Manchester University, Huntington University and Trine University, among others.

“We have to play to our strengths,” Mirro said about his hopes of attracting some orthopedic devices makers and suppliers. “We need to get them signed on to help train their future workforce.”

Parkview Health supports the goal of increasing the region's population to 1 million, a goal established by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. The strategy relies on creating unique spaces and events people want to be part of. Electric Works meets the criteria, in Mirro's opinion.

“This could be the tipping point for the transformational success of northeast Indiana,” he said. “It's not just about a job, it's about quality of place.”

Mirro believes Parkview, the region's largest employer, has a responsibility to be a community leader. That's one reason Parkview was a lead investor in the Electric Works project, he said.

“The impact of this project,” he added, “cannot be overestimated for the region.”

sslater@jg.net