ALEX MEYER / SENIOR WRITER
The LIGHTS program has fairly simple goals, such as building small businesses, creating jobs and attracting private investment to Southeast Ohio and nearby Appalachian counties that otherwise might not see such resources.
The program, an acronym for “Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability,” was established through a $2 million grant to Ohio University from the Appalachian Regional Commission in August. The initiative, collaboratively organized with OU’s Innovation Center, aims to help “coal-impacted communities” across 28 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.
But for Jennifer Simon, such goals carry greater significance in that they apply to residents living towns like Waterford in Washington County, where she grew up. Twenty-five years ago, a nearby coal mine shut down, Simon, the executive director of regional innovation said, and the American Electric Power plant near the town closed in 2015 as well, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
After those big-time regional employers closed up shop, Simon said there was a large cohort of people left without jobs.
“Even though it’s gone, the skills remain and the people are still there,” Simon said. “People in our region know how to use their hands.”
Through LIGHTS, Simon aims to provide entrepreneurs in the region places where they can use those hands — whether that be to make products or to start their own businesses.
LIGHTS offers business assistance to entrepreneurs while helping them to create the products. The program also serves up “makerspaces” where such products can be manufactured.
Such makerspaces, listed on the program’s website, are community hubs where people can use 3D printers or practice their woodworking, fabrication and jewelry-making, among other skills. The program also works with other manufacturers for more advanced production, Simon said.
One of the makerspaces associated with LIGHTS is the Building Bridges to Careers Epicenter in Marietta, which began in January. Epicenter is one of eight programs within Building Bridges to Careers, an organization that aims to connect students, parents and teachers with businesses and employers.
Tasha Werry, the organization's facilitator, said the Epicenter works with three entrepreneurs in-residence to provide incubation and development. Among them are an online magazine, a videographer and an insurance company, she said.
“The reason why we did this is because a lot of people aren’t going to drive hour and a half, two hours to the campus of Ohio University to start a business or to make something,” Simon said. “They want to do it in their backyards.”
The program has lofty goals: create 1,100 jobs, start 125 businesses and bring in $25 million in private investment to the 28-county area within six years.
Between its start in October and the end of the calendar year, LIGHTS created 10 new businesses and about 10 new jobs, generated $191,000 in private investment, held 13 training events and involved 317 participants, Simon said.
Stacy Strauss, director of the Innovation Center, said the incubator works closely with LIGHTS to support entrepreneurs develop products.
“Given the nature of the work that the Innovation Center and LIGHTS both do, there have already been several examples of the two staffs combining efforts to expedite the success of burgeoning companies,” Strauss said in an email.
Through the rest of the year, Simon says she aims to expand the centers, acquire new equipment and look for new funding sources. But at the end of the day, her main goal is still to help people living in towns like Waterford.
“If we don’t come in and make sure that people in communities like mine have an opportunity to connect with different types of resources that fit with what they’re doing, then we’ll lose people.”
Photos by: Emily Matthews / Photo Editor
Developed by: Seth Archer / Digital Managing Editor