Akron. In Latin, it means “pinnacle of polymer science.”
OK, that's a lie.
But for much of the last century and continuing today, the city's name has been synonymous with rubber, plastics and the science behind the polymers that make such materials effective, cheap and abundant. It's a field of science and endeavor that the city continued to nurture, decades after the tire-making jobs that put Akron on the map were gone.
The old rubber industry left Akron with some substantial assets in terms of world-leading companies that call the city and region their home, and two major universities that draw students from around the globe to their expertise in polymer science—the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Some say the region is the Silicon Valley of polymer science. “That's exactly the reference I make all the time—Silicon Valley,” said Chris Murphy, vice president and chief innovation officer for specialty polymer materials company PolyOne, located about an hour from Akron, just west of Cleveland.
Murphy and others say that the region achieved its prominence in the polymer science field similar to the way that Silicon Valley developed its reputation in computer science—by having a core group of companies that worked closely with universities to develop not just the science itself, but also a critical mass of knowledge, business endeavors and technical people who provide the work force that drives it all forward.
Luis Proenza knew of the region's strength in the field when he took over as the University of Akron's president in 1999—a school long known around the world for its expertise in polymer science. But when he first got to the school, local and state policymakers needed an education, he said, and the university gave it to them. One of the first things the school did under Proenza was to take stock of the region and state's polymer science assets.
“We calculated the annual shipment of polymer products at about $50 billion, and Ohio was, I believe, the largest employer in terms of polymer-related jobs in the country, Proenza said.
While everyone knew about how Akron had lost most of the jobs once provided by four big rubber companies, it had gone largely unnoticed that the city and surrounding area had become home to about 1,800 other companies, many of them small, working in rubber, plastics and related fields.
“Nobody realized that, prior to that,” Proenza said.