Viewpoint: Collaboration and networking equip South Bend-Elkhart region for success

Author: Mitch Landess, Conexus Indiana

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By Mitch Landess

Originally published in the South Bend Tribune, January 8, 2022.

As a company CEO, if you notice that 5% of your sales team is bringing in 16% of your business, you no doubt would want to share your top sellers’ best practices with the rest of your team.

I feel the same way. And since my role is to help Indiana’s advanced manufacturing and logistics companies invest in new technologies, I am sharing how some companies have had great success with Indiana’s Manufacturing Readiness Grants program. 

In the past 18 months, Conexus Indiana and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation have awarded $13.4 million in Manufacturing Readiness Grants to help Indiana companies invest in smart, innovative and emerging Industry 4.0 technologies. 

While these grants have been awarded to companies located in 54 Indiana counties, 16% of all awards and 13% of award dollars have gone to three counties: Elkhart, St. Joseph and Marshall counties. Companies in those counties secured an outsized share of the grants despite representing only 5% of Indiana counties receiving funding.

Which certainly begs the question, what’s their secret and how do they continue to punch above their weight?

From watching and talking with leaders in that region, it’s clear much of their success comes from executing some of the basics: Collaborate strategically, network purposefully, attack problems logically and tap into the resources around you.

Admittedly, these three counties have impressive resources to tap into, including enFocus, a nonprofit that attracts and engages emerging talent for Northern Indiana communities, and the University of Notre Dame. With generous support from Lilly Endowment Inc., Notre Dame launched iNDustry Labs to help regional businesses connect with university resources so that those companies could adapt to the increasingly “digital age of manufacturing.”

It’s important to note that the mere presence of resources doesn’t make things happen. To succeed, the businesses and communities in the South Bend-Elkhart area leveraged available expertise and took advantage of objective perspectives on challenges and opportunities that those on the inside of a business might miss.

For example, iNDustry Labs leaders say that, while many communities or regions might assume that the only way to increase their economic prospects is to attract new businesses, greater success might be found by balancing business attraction with investments that help to make existing industry more productive and resilient. Similarly, the iNDustry Labs team notes, individual businesses should avoid arriving at solutions — “We need robots,” for example, or “We need new software” — before analyzing all of their available opportunities.

Another key component of the region’s success has been its willingness to make the most of networks within its communities and industries. enFocus and iNDustry Labs supported this effort by helping businesses in the South Bend-Elkhart region identify and tap into solutions found just down the road rather than on the other side of the country or overseas.

A third piece of the puzzle has been an emphasis on allowing talent to contribute meaningfully. By connecting with emerging talent at the region’s higher education institutions and beyond, and leveraging the resources of the Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation Network, businesses in the South Bend-Elkhart region have created a place where young people feel they can make a difference and build careers.

Not every community, county or even region has the same resources offered by enFocus or iNDustry Labs. But ambitious communities, counties and regions will reach out to comparable opportunities — colleges or universities, nonprofits, business groups, resident experts, and so on — in their areas. They will connect more strategically with their neighbors and peers across town. And they will create opportunities for emerging talent to engage, contribute and find a home.

If more areas of the state follow the model offered by the South Bend-Elkhart region, we could see Manufacturing Readiness Grants awards going to new concentrations of opportunity. But, even more important, we would see bursts of creative energy in new areas of Indiana — bursts that can fire up the economic engine for the entire state and benefit all Hoosiers for years to come.

Mitch Landess is vice president of Innovation and Digital Transformation at Conexus Indiana.