2007/10/26

PPNB Supercluster Innovation Center

An intriguing concept full of possibilities for Wisconsin innovation is a PPNB supercluster Innovation Center.

PPNB is a complementary group of industry sectors including pulp and paper, printing, nonwovens and biorefinery. The concept behind this supercluster is that each cluster has technology, product, raw material and infrastructure ideas and knowledge to share with the other three clusters. A commonly-held view is that significant opportunities for innovation occur at the intersections between the sectors in an industry supercluster.

The PPNB supercluster was identified by the 2003 Northeast Wisconsin Economic Opportunity Study (NEW EOS) as a strength or resource of the region. Ever since reading that report, I've been intrigued by the possibilities that innovation in that supercluster holds for improving the economy of Wisconsin. A PPNB Innovation Center would be an effective focal point for capitalizing on the strengths identified in the NEW EOS.

The ideal PPNB Innovation Center (PIC) will have full-scale production facilities for at least one of the four sectors and at least lab and pilot-scale facilities for the other three sectors. One variation of this is an integrated pulp and paper mill which has a biorefinery unit to convert waste streams into fuel or energy and other biorefinery processes converting biomass into bio-polymers which can be used for coating papers, can be converted into nonwovens raw materials, or can make value added end use bio-products. The printing area of the PPNB Innovation Center will be able to print on paper produced in the paper mill, have equipment to do printing research, print on specialty nonwovens, and have an area to install new printing equipment supplied by an entrepreneur or a printing equipment company. The nonwovens area will have several pilot lines to run trials for raw material companies and for converters and will be able to run both standard nonwovens polymers such as polypropylene and polyethylene, as well as machines to run new biopolymers developed in the facility's biorefinery or ones developed elsewhere. This PIC will be an innovator's dream lab and workshop and will lead the way in spinning out startups and new products.

Most people involved with any of the four PPNB sectors would agree a facility like this will be valuable for northeast Wisconsin. The primary challenge to making the PIC a reality is structuring the business model for such a center and bringing together the necessary investors and industry players.

Attending the Insight Nonwovens Technical Conference in Florida this week convinced me that innovation is happening in the nonwovens world. The scary thing is that too little of the nonwovens innovation is being done in the US. Because of labor costs and the global economy, if the US nonwovens industry wants to remain an import part of the sector, it had better stop being complacent and stop thinking that other areas of the world look to the US as the primary source of innovation. From Carlos Richer and others at the conference, I heard many examples of areas other than the US bringing innovations to the nonwovens market. The US nonwovens sector needs to collaborate, innovate, learn from other sectors and be the first to market with many new technologies and products. The paper industry has not yet learned that lesson -- can the nonwovens industry learn it before it's too late?

If you have ideas about the PIC or want to work with me to move the project ahead, send me an email.

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