While economists and politicians bemoan the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, the goal of a new University of Arizona program is to bring companies to Tucson from across the country and the globe.
Global Advantage, a program of Tech Parks Arizona, aims to recruit new businesses to the UA Tech Park on South Rita Road by offering an array of product-development and business support.
The current Global Advantage program is a retool of a program of the same name launched in 2004, which aimed to attract foreign companies by working with technology business incubators in other countries.
“We played at it for a while but it just didn’t seem to get much traction,” said Bruce Wright, associate UA vice president for Tech Parks Arizona.
In 2014, the UA reworked the program to focus on identifying and recruiting companies that are eager to partner with the UA in six technology areas.
Global Advantage took on a couple of clients then, but has since shifted its offices to a tech park building at 9070 S. Rita Road and now has four companies signed up for the program, including one original client.
Partners in the effort include Tucson Electric Power Co., industrial fabricator CAID Industries, The Offshore Group, commercial real-estate broker PICOR/Cushman Wakefield and the Arizona Technology Council, which recently moved its Southern Arizona office to the Global Advantage building.
The program focuses on six technology areas: advanced energy, including solar and other renewables; aerospace and defense; agriculture, water and arid-lands technology; biosciences, with a focus on medical devices and diagnostics; mining technology; and intelligent transportation systems.
Wright says the UA and Tucson have deep expertise in those areas that can help companies perfect their products, with Tech Park space to accommodate collaborative business development.
While the program is not limited to foreign firms, he said prospective client companies ideally are interested in demonstrating their products to the North American market and want to access huge markets relatively close to Tucson, including California and Texas as well as Mexico.
Global Advantage staff and the program’s business partners have spent the last two years building up the program’s presence in government and university circles and have made recruitment visits to countries including Mexico, Israel, Germany, Finland, Spain and Canada.
Once signed up, Global Advantage clients get two free years of office space, help in developing a custom business plan, as well as help with such things as staffing and employee relocation, banking, market analysis and networking. After two years, they can pay fees to stay up to two more years.
“The hope is, they’ll be successful, they’ll establish their business permanently in Tucson and Southern Arizona, and we would hope they would consider putting their place of business in the Tech Park,” Wright said.
Here’s a look at the Global Advantage client companies and what they think of the program:
Cleveland Electric Labs
The 97-year-old maker of temperature sensors for industrial markets began working with the Global Advantage program in 2014 to test a new line of fiber-optic based security sensors, which detect vibration and movement and transmit data through glass-fiber cables.
The company, which has a production plant in Tempe that employs about 40 people, already has developed a line of fiber-optic-based sensors to monitor such things as the structural health of bridges, aircraft engines and pipelines.
The system constantly polls each sensor point and feeds the data into a main network that can be set up to provide various alerts, such as texting security personnel, said Rodger Shepherd, vice president of Cleveland Electric Labs Advanced Technology Group.
The company has been testing its fence-security product on fencing bordering photovoltaic installations since 2014 at the Tech Park’s 233-acre Solar Zone demonstration area.
After finding ground-mounted sensors difficult to perfect, the company is now testing a system deployed along the top of about three-quarters of a mile on a chain-link fence guarding the Solar Zone.
The company is in the process of opening an office with engineering and sales staff at Global Advantage, where it will soon begin courting potential customers, said Shepherd, adding that Global Advantage has provided critical help in finding clients and linking with other organizations.
The 9-year-old Mexican company designs and custom-builds automated manufacturing equipment, working with partners that provide robotics and other components.
Up to now, the company has mainly served Mexico’s auto-assembly industry, which employs more than a million people in component and full-vehicle assembly lines in 14 Mexican states, said Mark Marchand, operations director for ProAutomation.
The company has opened a sales office at Global Advantage for now, but plans to open new manufacturing plants in the U.S. and make inroads into the aerospace industry, Marchand said.
“The sales office is the start of a full-blown manufacturing facility in various locations in the states — this is in the works,” he said.
Marchand, who was referred to Global Advantage by Visit Tucson, gave the program high marks.
“They are really, really helping us to launch our initiative in the states,” he said. “They have been instrumental, their support has been really amazing.”
As the name suggests, the Detroit-based company’s main business is a hybrid solar panel that generates power from photovoltaics while making hot water.
But the company is expanding into a new product line: modular systems for aquaponics, which combines soil-free hydroponic plant production with fish farming.
The system is based on Power Panel’s proprietary, modular hot-water storage tanks, which are comprised of thick foam panels, a waterproof liner and a sleeve that holds it all together.
The company’s Aquagrove aquaponics system combines a 150-gallon tank for fish with an upper 16-square-foot growing tray or raft. In operation, water from the fish tank is pumped into the planting bed, where the plants use nitrite in the fish waste and essentially filter water returned to the lower tank.
“It’s a very efficient way to use less water and energy with higher yields of better-quality foods,” said Joe Naroditsky, business-development manager for Power Panel.
The company is finalizing plans to place prototype aquaponics systems in high schools, including some local schools, so the company can gather data and students learn about aquaponics.
Naroditsky said Global Advantage has been instrumental in opening doors and making introductions, and the offices there will be base of operations for Power Panel’s aquaponics business.
The Israeli company has developed a “kinetic battery” — essentially a system that stores energy in the form of motion — that uses a cylindrical flywheel that is spun up and can produce power as needed.
The system comes in modular blocks, each with a capacity of 3 kilowatt hours, which can be ganged together to megawatt scale.
Chakratec has successfully piloted the system in Israel and hopes to use Global Advantage to demonstrate the technology to the North American market.
“We are now working on installations with the leading utilities in Europe, the next step for us is to move to North America,” Chakratec CEO Ilan Ben-David said in an email.
Ben-David said that because of multiple levels of regulation, it’s tough to break into the U.S. market.
“We joined the Global Advantage program because we believe that a successful pilot as part of this program will contribute to open the American market,” he said.