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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Findlay eyeglass firm gets tech grant

FINDLAY - High-tech doesn't just mean fuel-cell cars or higher-resolution computer displays. It also means cheaper, yet more durable, eyeglasses.

Gov. Bob Taft continued a statewide tour promoting his Third Frontier Project yesterday at a local firm that makes equipment to mold, not grind, eyeglass lenses using a light-sensitive plastic that is hard in the center but just rubbery enough at the surface to resist scratching.

But now manufacturer OptiCast would like to find a way to make the molds cheaper to produce, possibly by making them out of plastic instead of metal. Doing so would make the process more economical for use by small optometrists' offices in the United States, and perhaps make the technology available in poorer nations as well, said Dr. Duane Wires, the company's founder and chairman.

“What we really sell is the plastic,” said Dr. Wires, who maintains an optometry practice in Ada, Ohio, along with overseeing OptiCast.

Governor Taft visited the plant yesterday to announce an $859,691 Third Frontier Action Fund grant to OptiCast that Dr. Wires said will, among other things, help pay for the development of the new manufacturing process.

OptiCast's way of making better eyeglasses is a prime example of the research-driven manufacturing Ohio needs to pursue to replace its waning smokestack sector, the governor said.

“This is new knowledge transferring into a new product and new jobs,” Mr. Taft said. “Ohio's economic future is really at stake. We aren't making boots or bicycles here anymore.”

Eyeglasses can be produced in as little as 20 minutes using the OptiCast method, including just five minutes to cast the lenses.

Overseas producers are able to make eyeglasses that cost less than OptiCast's, Dr. Wires said, but are of inferior quality. Reducing the overhead cost will make OptiCast's method both better and cheaper than the competition's, he said.

The firm also is working on adding colors and anti-reflective properties to the plastic, the founder said.

Within five years, OptiCast expects to add 50 employees to its current payroll of six, he said, and at least double its annual sales of $1.2 million.

OptiCast's work, Mr. Taft said, is another case in favor of Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would allow the state to issue $500 million in bonds “to support science and technology-based research and development purposes, including new product development and commercialization, capital formation, operating costs, public and private institutions of higher education, research organizations, institutions or facilities, and private-sector business and industry,” according to ballot language for the measure.

The bond issue is part of a broader $1.6 billion package Mr. Taft has proposed for the Third Frontier Project. The amendment is Question 1 on the Nov. 4 election ballot.

It was referred to voters earlier this year by the General Assembly.

The plastic OptiCast's process uses is made by Spectra Group Limited, Inc., of Toledo, which developed it to OptiCast's specifications. Spectra Group is an offshoot of a research arm of Bowling Green State University, the Photoinstrumentation and Photopolymerization Laboratory.

Partnerships among government, businesses, and academia are what Third Frontier is all about, Mr. Taft said.

Previous Third Frontier grants to northwest Ohio interests have included $2 million in June to the BGSU lab and grants announced Oct. 15 of $2 million to the Center for Photovoltaic Electricity and Hydrogen at the University of Toledo; $622,272 to Imaging Systems Technology, of Toledo, and $483,700 to Cooling Technologies, Inc., of Toledo.

But the bond proposal is not without its critics. Earlier this month, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation urged its members to oppose Issue 1 on the grounds that it increases state indebtedness during a time of budget shortages, that its job-creation return is uncertain, and that the plan “fails to recognize agriculture's ability to contribute to a new high tech economy.”

The group suggested that Ohio change its tax policies and civil litigation laws to be more business-friendly before embarking on efforts to attract new businesses to the state.



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