McALLEN, RGV – McAllen Economic Development Corporation believes the new ideas coming out of the KAIST research park in Daejeon can lead directly to good paying manufacturing jobs in the Rio Grande Valley.

McAllen EDC leaders have just returned from a visit to South Korea’s fifth largest city. They were invited to visit the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to explain their concept of rapid response manufacturing, which means getting a product from design to marketplace in as short a time period as possible.

They were also on hand to see a memorandum of understanding signed by the City of Daejeon and the City of McAllen.

“Close your eyes and picture a 381-acre research park that employs 10,000 professionals with PhDs. This is what is happening at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology,” said Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen EDC.

Here is the wording of the agreement:

<I><B>The City of McAllen, a major advanced manufacturing center for North America, and Daejeon Metropolitan City, a global leader in science and technology, have agreed to work together in a spirit of friendship to promote closer partnerships in the fields of economy, science and technology. The cities will work together to provide economic opportunities in business, trade and investment based on a principle of reciprocity. The cities agree that this initial MOU from the mayor’s letters between the cities on May 11, and May 27, 2011 is the first stage of developing closer relationships between the two cities in the years to come. 31 March, 2014. </I></B>

KAIST was formed 40 years when the South Korean government decided to make Daejeon its national research center. It is now one of the leading research universities in the world and only accepts the top one percent of graduates. Its research park sits on 381 acres. In 2012, KAIST issued 1,381 patents.

In a lengthy interview with the Guardian, Patridge said MEDC wants to engage with the residents of the Valley to see if university research, coupled with rapid response manufacturing is the way to go. If so, he believes, the Valley can learn a lot from KAIST and Daejeon. He said a collaborative agreement McAllen and Daejeon that was signed during the trip to South Korea could be the first step.

“Is this what we would like for our region? We want to know what our citizenry thinks. What we are doing now at McAllen EDC is not for today. It is for 40 years from now.”

Officials from Daejeon, KAIST, McAllen and UTPA are pictured with a recently signed Memorandum of Understanding.
Officials from Daejeon, KAIST, McAllen and UTPA are pictured with a recently signed Memorandum of Understanding.

Patridge said McAllen made a long shot bet on the maquila industry 30 years ago and it paid off handsomely. He wonders aloud if its leaders today want to make the same long term commitment on advanced manufacturing and allied research. If so, he said, the Valley could benefit from the ties McAllen and the University of Texas-Pan American are making with the City of Daejeon and KAIST. He said KAIST officials have identified ten or 12 Korean companies that would be a logical fit for the McAllen area.

“While we were there, the folks at KAIST said, look, we do a real good job of coming up with ideas, of discoveries but we do a lousy job of commercializing them. We discover something, it goes on the shelf and then we go on to discover something else. They said you guys (in McAllen) are focused on applied research and commercialization. We would like to form a cooperative, commercialization agreement with McAllen and UTPA,” Patridge explained.

“Universities all over the world have been trying to get this kind of relationship with KAIST. A lot of it has to do with the relationship Miguel has. We worked with them. We developed this agreement and we signed it. The goal is to bring new technologies and technology companies from Korea to McAllen and then as we develop commercialization and new companies we take them from here to Korea. It becomes a two-way fertilization of ideas. It is a natural fit.”

The Miguel Patridge refers to is Professor Miguel Gonzalez, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at UTPA. Gonzalez accompanied the MEDC officials on the trip.

Patridge explained the rationale for developing relations with KAIST.

“We have been rightly focusing on education and training and UTPA and STC do excellent job. But, if we keep doing a good job with our educational institutions but there are no jobs it is a zero sum game. Forty years from now we will still be in the same place we are today.

“If we start producing PhDs and we do not have research for them, we are going to be spending a lot of money for nothing. We will lose those students. We need research and the opportunity to create new companies. We are putting the building blocks in place now. We are fortunate to work with Korea, with one of the leading institutions in the world. Everyone would like to have the relationship but we have the relationship.”

The City of Daejeon has a population of 1.5 million people, not much more than the Valley. However, it is much wealthier. It has an annual budget $2.8 billion a year. Its gross domestic product is $27 billion. “The national government has put a lot of money into research in Daejeon,” Patridge said.

Patridge said the City of Daejeon only has about two Sister City agreements. “They are very guarded about who they enter into agreements with. We feel honored to have been selected.” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and UTPA President Robert Nelsen had hoped to be on the trip to Daejeon but were prevented from doing so by pressing matters at home. They hope to go on a future trip. Darling did appear in a video about McAllen that was presented to Daejeon officials.

The City of McAllen and McAllen EDC have been making regular visits to Korea since 1990. On the first trip were then McAllen Mayor Othal Brand, then McAllen City Commissioner Jan Klinck, then McAllen EDC President Mike Allen, and Patridge. Patridge said it was because of the beautification of the Korean cities they visited that made Brand insist on his city be spruced up by its parks and recreation department.

“Korea was much different back in 1990. It was an emerging country. It was still a bit wild and wooly. We were told not to drink the water in the hotel room. But it was absolutely beautiful, as clean as can be. It was just after Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics,” Patridge remembers.

The relationships forged on that and subsequent visits are starting to pay off now, Patridge said. In fact, one of the reasons for the latest trip was so that Korean officials could learn about the rapid response project being undertaken by the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative, which McAllen EDC and UTPA are part of.

“There is a whole strategic plan behind this that I am not going to get into but it would make a lot of sense if we could tell you about it. The folks from KAIST come over once a year, bringing companies that may be interested in building a manufacturing operation here, and then, once a year, we go over there and take our companies to see Daejeon,” Patridge said.

So what comes next?

“We have to develop our research park. We have to have a top quality university, which we are developing, and we have to have a research component. And, we have to get our first building for the research park. It costs money and so the question is, how do we fund it? It is unlikely that it will come from the federal government. How do we get the citizenry of McAllen to invest in this? How do we explain we could be the KAIST of Texas?

“We have to tell people what the potential is and see if they want it. This is another of those watershed moments, like the maquila concept. It is up to the citizenry of this region but we believe it is an investment in our grandkids. That is what we have got to think about it,” Patridge added.