Editor’s Note: This article was featured in the Athens Messenger during May 7-12, designated as National Economic Development Week by the International Economic Development Council.

In October 2016, we began a journey to build a new and promising approach to meet the region’s economic and workforce development needs. With a $2 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, we launched the LIGHTS Regional Innovation Network as a framework to combine makerspaces, business incubation services and workforce development programs.

LIGHTS focuses on “making” as a central tenet for diversifying the economy. The Maker Movement is demonstrably altering the nature of community-based innovation and commerce worldwide creating a maker economy. Making represents a return to the region’s Appalachian heritage: creating by hand. The Appalachians, my people, used their hands to mine coal, labor in power plants, work with wood, produce textile arts, distill alcohol and build manufacturing capacities. For that reason, we maintain that a Gateway Network should center primarily on wood, fabrication, fabric, additive manufacturing, energy, artisans and craft beer/distillation.

Comprised of educational institutions, makerspaces and incubators, the project incorporates the work of 12 entrepreneurial development organizations. Gateways meet regularly to collaboratively formulate the best solutions, share best practices and identify opportunities, thereby enabling the Network to be strategic, transformational and regionally-linked.

The Gateways rely on the principles of cross-sector collaboration; co-creation; crowdsourcing; and engagement of institutions of higher education like Hocking College, Shawnee State University, Zane State College and Ohio University and its many branch campuses.

Cross-network activities include matching makers to manufacturers; collectively providing marketplace enhancement to entrepreneurs through technology expertise; and developing decentralized manufacturing with small machine shops within the Gateways’ makerspaces. The final component may be the most important in the Network. Matching today’s innovators with small manufacturers, machine shops and craftspeople provides economic boosts beyond the original entrepreneur. The ripple effect means more jobs for more people and a stronger, diversified economy.

While each of the Innovation Gateways is distinctly designed and reflective of their home community, all will feature five basic components either in-house or through defined partnerships:

  • A makerspace
  • Entrepreneurial and incubation business assistance
  • Immediate employment opportunities
  • An open/inviting community space
  • Social service matching

The program has launched physical spaces, coordinated events and curricula, and provided direct business development assistance. In Athens County, the project involves four different organizations in Athens and Nelsonville. ACEnet provides “making” opportunities for wood entrepreneurs at the center in Nelsonville. The Innovation Center at Ohio University maintains expertise in additive manufacturing and other prototype development technologies.
In its first 14 months, LIGHTS staff members and grant-funded partners cumulatively supported 63 new businesses or new product lines of existing companies. Combined, these businesses employ 132 new employees, achieved sales revenues exceeding $37 million, attracted state and non-federal grant funding totaling $745,805, and paid total wages (annualized) of $2.44 million.
This represents a return on investment of $38 for every ARC dollar invested during this period. While this project may not have the immediate impacts we all want to see, we are building a diversified economy that will outlast us all. True economic development begins with the entrepreneur somewhere, someplace. Why not make that place Appalachia rather than Silicon Valley.

For more information on the LIGHTS program, please visit:

Jennifer Simon is the executive director of regional innovation at Ohio University and leads the Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability (LIGHTS) program.

About LIGHTS: Ohio University’s Innovation Center founded the LIGHTS (Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability) program in 2016. LIGHTS’ Innovation Network catalyzes the creation of companies to create high-wage jobs, and attract greater private investment in the coal-impacted regions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The Appalachian Regional Commission generously funded the program because of its unique way of matching complex problems and opportunities facing corporations, communities, and individuals to a network of two strategically-placed Innovation Hubs and seven Gateways. New marketable products arise from these problems. The Gateways and Hubs are new business incubators and makerspaces serving a 28-county area.