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As the South Bend-Elkhart Region celebrates a $42.4 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we know the work to make the best investment with it is really just beginning.

The spirit of entrepreneurship has been a vibrant part of our region for decades, and the story of our family company could be somewhat of a guidebook for the region as it ventures forward.

ITAMCO began as a dream of my uncle, Donald Neidig, and my father, Noble Neidig, to have their own business. Donald had worked in manufacturing for 13 years, became a plant manager, and eventually a vice president at South Bend Tool & Die. My father had just graduated with a business degree from Manchester College and together in 1955 they started a company called Indiana Tool & Mfg. Co. (ITAMCO), in Plymouth, which was at that time a traditional tool and die shop.

This region was a center of manufacturing, with companies such as Studebaker, Singer, Oliver Plow, Bendix, Conn-Selmer, Miles and a host of other well-known names, it has been a region of innovation and opportunity.

These larger companies are never an island unto themselves. Smaller companies like ITAMCO, are key players in supplying goods and services to meet the needs of these companies. ITAMCO was located in Marshall County, where my family had arrived in 1850 after leaving Germany for Pennsylvania in the 1790s.

Innovation was always at the forefront of decisions that were made. We invested in every technology we could afford, and research and development were a motivation to gain an edge to our competition. Precision manual machining changed to computer numeric controlled machining. Quality hand tools changed to computerized coordinate measuring machines.

In 1980, we added gear manufacturing to our capabilities, and that propelled the company a completely different direction and helped build it from 30 people to 180 people and the facilities from 4,000 square feet to almost 500,000 square feet.

While the core business of making gears has continued to be successful, we recognized that we needed to be relentless in seeking Advanced Manufacturing capabilities. We have added capabilities with 3D metal printing, robotics, internet of things, virtual reality and advanced software development, including blockchain.

This mentality helped hone our skills and expand our capabilities, but it became evident that this type of thinking was a product of years of intense competition. Because we were a small company, it was not a sustainable nor effective plan for research and development of new ideas.

In 2008, we became involved in a national initiative called MT Connect, which was the beginning of the industrial internet of things. Through that involvement, our knowledge network grew, and gained the attention of some of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame.

Professors Steve Schmidt and Rick Billo encouraged my son Joel Neidig to stretch our efforts, collaborate with research institutions like Notre Dame, and seek federal research dollars. With their direction, we were successful in landing multiple projects with the Manufacturing USA Institutes, and have received six federal Small Business Innovation Research grants.

These awards have now spawned two new startups and are creating new jobs that would have never been in our region. Atlas 3D offers a cloud-based simulator to help people orient and build metal printed parts. Simba Chain is creating pathways for government and business clients to harness the strengths of both blockchain and cloud technologies to store and communicate information. As we grow and evolve to become part of the global marketplace in a new way, we rebranded ITAMCO as Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Cos.

Our region is poised to ignite the imaginations of companies and individuals that have developed ideas but have never been able to make those ideas a reality. Education is the catalyst for the realization of these ideas.

The funds that the Lilly Endowment has provided will provide the backbone for programs that will enable thousands to benefit from the knowledge of how to start a business, develop a new idea, build a prototype, and test the products in a real-world setting.

ITAMCO is one of the companies who has embraced collaboration as a means to that end, and we believe there should be dozens if not hundreds of other companies like ours, working together to build the region.

Gary Neidig is president of Plymouth-based ITAMCO and chair of the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership’s entrepreneurship initiative, “Startup South Bend–Elkhart.” The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.