When people talk about the future of Metro Detroit's economy they probably have a company like ECD Ovonics in mind. The Rochester Hills technology firm is a nationwide leader in the development of alternative energy, ranging from hydrogen to solar power. It's not uncommon to see politicians or executives extolling the virtues of ECD's solar-panel roofing shingles, advances in hydrogen energy development or hybrid car batteries. They'll not only laud the merits of these products but pronounce how these products create job after job for the 21st Century economy.
"ECD really has done some really extraordinary things and Michigan benefits in a lot of different ways from it," says Michael Shore, chief communications officer for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. "Not just in job creation but also as a center for creativity. It's emblematic of what can happen here."
That helps explain why so many leaders from across Metro Detroit and the entire state are making ECD the poster child for emerging local businesses. Companies like ECD demonstrate that Michigan is much more than the corroded buckle of the rust belt; it is a state that is successfully transitioning from a brawn-based economy to a brain-based one. Though auto-industry layoffs and abandoned manufacturing plants grab headlines and reinforce the stereotype that Michigan still doesn't "get it," companies like ECD, which has been around for decades, speak otherwise.
Like dandelion seeds, ECD offshoots are taking root in Michigan's economy and helping to create more fertile ground. Cobasys, which is half-owned by ECD, is a leader in the development of nickel metal hydride batteries, which make hybrid cars possible. It's the key technological component in GM's prototype electrical car, the Chevrolet Volt. ECD's advances in hydrogen technology are also expected to pave the way for hydrogen-fueled cars in the not-too-distant future. United Solar Ovonics, another ECD offshoot, is one of the nation's leaders in solar panel technology, sharing the title It's of "largest producer of thin-film solar panels in the nation" with a rival Ohio firm.
"ECD can only enhance our reputation," says Mark Beyer, director of communications for NextEnergy Detroit. "It can show how a manufacturing area like Southeastern Michigan can retool its machinery so we can make more than just cars."
While the public sees ECD as a large tech company announcing complex with international heavy weights like GM, Texaco, IBM and Sony, it, like many corporate titans, got its start from humble beginnings.
Stanford and Iris Ovshinsky started ECD (which stands for Energy Conversion Devices) in a small storefront in Detroit at 6 Mile Road and the Schaefer Highway in 1960. Self-taught, much of Ovshinsky's work centered on developing technology to turn hydrogen into energy --long before it was in vogue, the way it is today.
"In many ways they got there first," Beyer says. "They're an overnight sensation that took 25 years to build."
Today ECD is a publicly traded company which holds more than 350 U.S. patents. Stanford Ovshinsky's discoveries opened the way for development of writable CDs and DVDs and is responsible for breakthroughs in semi-conductors, nanotechnology and information systems, as well as cutting-edge devices that generate and store energy.
The main focus of the company, however, is much the same as it was when the Ovshinskys first founded it nearly 50 years ago. Stanford and Iris wanted to use science and technology to address serious societal problems. The couple saw entrepreneurism as a way to keep both the economy and their community healthy. "Business as usual" was viewed as a recipe for disaster. It's a philosophy that Stanford Ovshinsky, now 84, still preaches to this day. (Sadly, his wife Iris died last year)
"You have to build new industries to enliven and grow the kinds of people and work cultures that you see elsewhere in the U.S. and other parts of the world," Stanford Ovshinsky says.
He believes Metro Detroit and Michigan have the ability to create that type of culture today, one that values people and is based on a meritocracy; two principals Ovshinsky thinks we have gotten away from in recent years. He is quick to point out that people are what make a company what it is, that they are responsible for its advances and how it adapts to change.
"Michigan has a great deal of talent left in it," Stanford Ovshinsky says. "The universities are responding to that talent. That talent is what will build the new industries."
ECD's companies are in the process of pioneering those new industries today. Among the countless new products in the firm's portfolio, is a new information storage device for computers that is expected to replace the flash drive. Furthermore, ECD's thin-film solar cells --integrated into the company's roofing shingles-- are selling faster than they can be built. It's a $15 billion sector of the economy that has seen a 40 percent annual growth rate.
"ECD is a large player in that part of the market," says Brad Collins, executive director of American Solar Energy Society. "Stan Ovshinsky is a legend in that industry and has been for decades." Collins
calls firms like ECD
"huge economic drivers producing high-paying jobs."
The MEDC's Shore agrees. He sees ECD's development of alternative energy technology as "not a whole lot different than what the auto industry went through 100 years ago."
Many see the combination of technological and manufacturing expertise at ECD as representative of what Michigan's new-economy companies can become. By excelling in both arenas, ECD has positioned itself to be a major player in the state's business community for a long time to come.
"Certainly, there are a lot of players in that, but none of are more significant than ECD," Shore says. "They are clear cut examples of what can happen here. They make the argument for us."
Still jonesing to read more about Ovonics ECD? Check out Why Isn't Stanford Ovshinsky a Billionaire? in our sister publication Rapid Growth.
Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was Three Big Ideas For Michigan.
Photos:Ovonyx's OUM technology is into a commercialization stage in a number of ways,
including joint development programs and licensing agreements
Ovonyx is focused on commercializing its OUM technology
Stanford Ovshinsky - founder
United Solar Ovonic thin-film PV material is flexible, durable, and lightweight, making it an ideal PV solution for a variety of applications
Photographs courtesy of ECD Ovonics