When quasar energy group President Mel Kurtz was addressing a biomass energy event in Cleveland in December 2009, his talk sparked the interest of a representative from Forest City Enterprises attending the meeting.

Quasar is a small company based in Cleveland that designs, builds and operates waste-to-energy facilities. Using a process called anaerobic digestion, the company takes wastes from food processors, farms and treatment facilities and uses them to produce biogas (60% methane), which can be supplied to natural gas utilities, used to generate electricity, or further processed as compressed natural gas.Quasar Energy Group

Forest City Enterprises is a multi-state real estate developer with approximately $10.5 billion in assets. One of those assets sitting idle was a former General Motors plant site in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood. Interested in sustainability, company officials saw an opportunity for an innovative investment using the GM site.

This July, quasar and Forest City celebrated the opening of an anaerobic digester at the site that can generate 1.3 megawatts of electricity for Cleveland's public power utility. The facility provides renewable energy to the system while at the same time reducing waste that would go into landfills.

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

The two companies might never have had a chance to get together were it not for the efforts of NorTech, a regional nonprofit economic development group dedicated to accelerating the growth of emerging technology industries such as the advanced energy and flexible electronics sectors.

The quasar-Forest City partnership helps illustrate what many economic development and manufacturing experts say is the vital role that industrial clusters play in encouraging innovation and maintaining the strength of U.S. manufacturing.

NorTech's Karpinkski  

NorTech's Karpinski:
Clusters help speed up the "cycle of innovation."

 

Companies in early development, says Dave Karpinski, a vice president at NorTech, gain real value from personal interactions. Engineers can walk out to the manufacturing floor and check on a design. Entrepreneurs can meet others with similar interests and explore new ideas and partnerships. As a result, says Karpinski, "The cycle of innovation can happen at a much higher rate of speed."

The term business cluster or industry cluster was popularized by Harvard professor Michael Porter in The Competitive Advantage of Nations, his 1990 book in which he argued that businesses in a geographic area may be able, through a concentration of resources, to achieve a competitive advantage. Clusters do this, Porter explained, "First, by increasing the productivity of companies based in the area; second, by driving the direction and pace of innovation, which underpins future productivity growth; and third, by stimulating the formation of new businesses, which expand and strengthen the cluster itself."