Q&A: Lester Lefton on Kent State's role in Ohio's new economy
Two area business and Third Frontier grant recipients, AlphaMicron and Kent Displays, were founded with technology invented at Kent State. How will new technology and education play a role in the changing economic landscape of Northeast Ohio?
Communities and areas of the country that have done well economically traditionally have universities at their heart. So around Route 128 in Boston you have MIT, Harvard, Northeastearn and Boston University. In Silicon Valley, you have Stanford University. And I think it's the same thing in Northeastern Ohio. You've got five terrific public universities, you've got Case Western Reserve University and the intellectual capital on which new businesses grow begins at universities.
What has been Kent State's role?
Clearly we have a long tradition of spurring off new businesses because of our Liquid Crystal Institute. That continues to be the case. We have an active technology transfer office. And we have a large number of patents and licenses that are emanated from the university every year.
What are some of the exciting things happening in the laboratories right now? What's the next liquid crystal?
It think there are a couple of areas. The next liquid crystal is likely to be (used) in biosensors. What I mean by that is using liquid crystal technology to detect pathogens, to help identify disease … We may be able to use liquid crystals to develop new fibers for our fashion school; we may be able to use liquid crystal technology in our college of public health, where finding disease and helping treat disease and some big public health issues, such as air quality and water quality.
What can be done to help prop up some of this new technology to attract jobs to Northeastern Ohio?
I serve on the executive committee and board of NorTech, which is the organization in Northeast Ohio that tries to help develop high technology companies. One of the things we're doing there -- and we're also doing at Kent State -- is looking at alternative fuel sources and alternative energy. These are growing technologies that have great commercialization possibilities.
Twenty years from now, what could this new economic landscape look like?
I am hoping for a rebirth of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland in particular as a home of biotechnology, medicine and public health.
What would you say has been your crowning achievement during your time so far at Kent State?
I haven't been here long enough to have a crowning achievement.
What about the work you've done with the city of Kent to bridge the gap between the college and the city?
There's no question that one of the biggest things I've been working on, and is still not done, is the downtown development project -- the hotel, the conference center and the linking of them to campus. The truth is that town-gown relations have never been better. The university is investing in downtown. And downtown is stepping up. Together we're going to build an economically vibrant college-town community -- for our students and for Portage County and for the city of Kent.
You're a native of Massachusetts. As someone not from Northeast Ohio, how does the area's reputation as relic of the Rust Belt sit with you?
Ohio still hasn't figured out completely that education is the root of success for its future. Massachusetts long ago figured out that having strong public universities, and strong private universities was going to give an economic advantage to the state of Massachusetts and help protect them from recession. Ohio still isn't there yet. We still have a culture of non-college-going. Convincing the public and the legislators that the root of success is education, and to invest in education is what we really need to be doing. That's the sharpest difference.
What would you change about this area?
I'd get rid of the snow.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Programs like the Third Frontier are the kinds of programs we need to continue to invest in, because programs like the Third Frontier spur economic development in the private sector, the public sector and universities.