In an unassuming beige building just outside The Plains, floor workers at Global Cooling Inc. craft small engines that will eventually power the company’s marquee product: ultra-low temperature lab freezers.

On the outside, the freezers, known by the market as Stirling Ultracold, look just like household refrigerators. But open the door to one and the difference becomes clear: A dense cloud of water vapor rolls out, a byproduct of the machine maintaining internal temperatures as low as minus 112 degrees.

In its current form, Global Cooling Inc. began as a startup in Athens in 2009. Now it’s bursting into the lab freezer market, selling to universities, companies and government agencies that use its products to store biological material. Its revenues are in the tens of millions of dollars annually, and it employs close to 100 people in total, including more than 40 on its production floor in The Plains. 

The company is a bright spot in Athens County’s economy, one dogged by a lack of private sector jobs and an overreliance on university work and low-paying retail jobs. The county is a Historically Underutilized Business Zone — a federal distinction applied to regions with low wages, high unemployment or both. But in the background, efforts are underway to create more companies like Global Cooling. 

“We are here very deliberately. It’s not an accident that we’re here,” Global Cooling CEO Neill Lane said, explaining that some of the company’s earliest investors, so-called angels, invested in Global Cooling with creating jobs in Athens in mind. 

Neill Lane, CEO of Stirling Ultracold, opens the company's portable model, the "Shuttle," at Stirling Ultracold in Athens on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Patrick Connolly | For the Post

“The most important thing we can do at Stirling Ultracold is succeed,” Lane said. “If we succeed, that’ll be the seed for the next thing. But we’ve got a lot of help.”

One of the company’s earliest backers was TechGrowth Ohio, an organization that funds and advises startup technology companies in southeast Ohio. TechGrowth was one of three funds that invested a total of $5.5 million in Global Cooling a little more than a year ago, and the group estimates it has generated nearly $350 million in economic activity in southeast Ohio since 2007.

TechGrowth’s fingerprints are all over the balance sheets of budding enterprises in Athens. One such business is Third Sun Solar, a solar panel installation company headquartered at 762 W. Union St.

Michelle and Geoff Greenfield founded Third Sun Solar in 2000 after finding there were no solar panel installers in the Athens area. Since then, the company has installed solar panels on homes and businesses across eight states and was named one of Inc. Magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing companies five years in a row. 

Third Sun Solar employs around 45 people, a majority of whom are based in Athens. The company reported $5.5 million in revenue in 2012, according to Inc. And that revenue continues to grow — sales to residential customers are up more than 200 percent year-over-year, Geoff said. 

Geoff said he plans to continue to grow the business in Athens. He’s optimistic about the economy here — about a future where the mineral extraction and heavy manufacturing that once buoyed the region is replaced by a mix of niche businesses that sell their products across the country and bring that money home. 

“I’m cautious about manufacturing anywhere in North America,” Geoff said. “There’s still some places that have held onto it, but I’m not sure that’s the future, as everyone fights for it and gives tax breaks to companies. But I do see continued growth in small business in terms of small business folks that find a niche and get good at it.”

Nurturing Innovation

Geoff credits some of Third Sun’s success to the nine years it spent operating out of the Ohio University Innovation Center, a university-affiliated business incubator located at 340 W. State St. in Athens. 

The center provides office space and coaching to emerging businesses in southeast Ohio, and there’s a lot of overlap between the Innovation Center tenants and TechGrowth-supported businesses. 

Since its founding in the early 1980s, the Innovation Center has spun out several of Athens’ County’s major private sector employers, Innovation Center Director Stacy Strauss said.

“There is a definitely a correlation between the Innovation Center’s work over the years and where Athens County residents are employed,” Strauss said.

Among those success stories is local biotech juggernaut Diagnostic Hybrids Inc. San Diego-based Quidel Corp. in 2010 bought Diagnostic Hybrids for $130 million. As of June 2016, Quidel employed 172 people in Athens, per data from the Athens County Economic Development Council, making it one of the largest employers in the county.

Other top employers that came through the Innovation Center include Ecolibrium Solar, which makes solar panel mounting racks, and Sunpower Inc., a maker of Stirling Engine products that employs more than 60 in Athens, per Athens County Economic Development Council data. 

“Getting companies that have grown here and have been funded here … getting them to stay is not hard, because we’re able to collaborate so well together and problem solve and find opportunities, whether those be space, or additional capital, or connections to legislators,” Strauss said. 

Still, a major gap exists between where most Athens County residents are able to find work and the number of well-paying jobs at companies like Global Cooling. 

That problem is fleshed out in a report published in January by The Montrose Group, an economic development consultant. The report demonstrates Athens’ “dangerous overreliance on government and low wage retail, food service and accommodation jobs.” 

The report shows government jobs — a majority of which are positions at OU — account for more than a third of the total number of jobs in Athens County, whereas employers in manufacturing and construction, like Global Cooling and Third Sun Solar, provide less than 10 percent of jobs in the county. 

But the presence of a major university could draw in private employers, in part because of the presence of expert faculty, the report says.  

That’s in large part what drove Liberty Mobility Now, a rural ride-sharing startup, to move its operations from Lincoln, Nebraska to the Innovation Center in Athens in August.

“It was the university,” Liberty CEO Valerie Lefler said. “And just the overwhelming support of faculty who understood what we were trying to do and the importance of transportation, and the willingness to be innovative and think outside the box.”

Liberty is small — in September, the company gave 5,000 rides nationwide, Lefler said. Compare that to urban ride-sharing company Lyft, which gave nearly 14 million rides in July 2016. About eight people work Liberty’s office in the Innovation Center and oversee operations in seven states. But it’s growing: The company plans to open a call center in nearby Marietta this spring, where it’ll hire up to 40 people, Lefler said. And the company wants to be operational across the country by 2020, according to its website.  

The county will need to continue attracting growing businesses — ideally, ones with hiring needs greater than Liberty — if it wants to tackle its jobs problem. The Montrose Group report says Athens County should aim to add 2,500 jobs and raise per capita income by 15 percent in the region in the next five years.

To achieve that, the report suggests acquiring and developing the Athens County Fairgrounds, creating a “major mixed-use development” at The Ridges, and establishing a technology accelerator. Accelerators and incubators — what the Innovation Center is — are similar, but accelerators are usually more structured and engage businesses for a shorter period.

Officials at the Athens County Economic Development Council, which is headquartered in the Innovation Center, did not return repeated requests for comment on the status of the implementation of the plan.