Opinion: Investment turns the Rust Belt green

Gary Cola
Our country and our state of Michigan need to continue to identify ways to lift up local businesses as we look to bring back jobs and lead in energy innovation, Cola says.

Last month, leaders of innovative clean energy small businesses were invited to participate in meetings with members of Congress to discuss groundbreaking new technologies, the expansion of the nation’s clean energy sector, and the need to protect federal funding for clean energy innovation.

As part of the Clean Energy Business Network, my colleagues from across the country and I, representing 25 states and a variety of industries, were invited to Washington to meet with members of Congress. While our work and products are vastly different from each other, we all represent a growing field of companies that are taking technological risks in the name of moving toward a low-carbon economy.

More than a decade ago my company, Flash Steelworks, identified and invented a breakthrough shortcut in the way we make commercial and military-grade steel products. In doing so, we found a way to create, pound-for-pound, the strongest and most ductile lightweight metal on the planet. And we did this at a fraction of the cost of more traditional products. The patented technologies that we’ve invented have cut production times and established sustainable and efficient production processes that are reshaping our industry while minimizing impacts to the environment. We’re using less energy, producing less waste, and producing materials that are far more durable.

Flash Steelworks is just one example of the innovative work being done across the country by American small businesses. When creating Flash Bainite, we envisioned our product serving and protecting Americans on the front lines. We knew our lightweight metal could stand up to the force of a bullet and save lives.

Following the experimental success on the military front, with help from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative, we were able to receive funding to venture into civilian use. The DOE had the foresight to see potential for domestic and commercial use in our military product and realized that with the right guidance there would be incredible opportunities — especially in the automotive industry.

After successfully completing Phase I and II SBIRs, a series of meetings and conversations led to our first-ever internally funded Phase III SBIR technology. The DOE would fund our research and commercialization efforts, and make our process replicable and available to other steel plants that might be interested in adopting our technology.

Without federal and local investment, our small businesses could not compete, let alone invent the resources to drive progress. Our country and my state of Michigan need to continue to identify ways to lift up local businesses as we look to bring back jobs and lead in energy innovation. The complex problems our country faces require the ingenuity and determination that come from small businesses, entrepreneurs, and those closest to the issues. However, without crucial funding, small businesses often face long odds in overcoming the valley of death and scaling our inventions, which leaves potentially groundbreaking products in conceptual stages.

As our country evaluates how to invest in our future and combat the growing energy crisis, I implore our elected officials to explore ways to invest in innovation at a local level. We must support further opportunities for research and development for small businesses like mine. There are a plethora of ways we can grow our economy while facing the world’s toughest issues; let’s start by ramping up support for a hotbed of innovation, America’s small businesses.

Gary Cola is founder of Flash Steelworks Inc.