Doug Neidich Giving Back Goes Downtown
After hitting it big with his own manufacturing company, he becomes a developer to revitalize midtown Harrisburg, PA in a sustainable way.
By Tom Gibson
After working as an engineer in industry for several years and then becoming an entrepreneur, Doug Neidich found himself in an enviable position at a crossroads in his career. He had sold the company he started and ran for 18 years, InterCon Systems, a manufacturer of specialized electronic connectors, and had to decide on his next move. He could’ve gone anywhere he chose or kicked back and relaxed for awhile. But instead, the native of Steelton, PA, near Harrisburg, decided to give something back to his home area.
“In my mind, when you sell a business and do well in it, you’ve got responsibility,” Neidich recalls. He took off his engineering hat in 2005 and started GreenWorks Development in what he calls “a nine-year-long exercise now in trying to fundamentally revitalize the city, which mainly includes education.”
While urban land development sounds like a departure from engineering and what he had been doing, it has actually brought Niedich, 56, back to engineering in a roundabout way. GreenWorks strives for sustainable development by using alternative energy systems and green building design, construction, and management techniques — a couple of their buildings sport solar panels on their roofs. He has also started another company called Solarity to develop thin-film photovoltaic panels. As I spent time with him, this whole picture fit together.
As a real estate development company, GreenWorks Development builds integrated urban communities in Central Pennsylvania in previously developed areas, restoring and revitalizing older, blighted neighborhoods. They work closely with state, county, and municipal governments; building and property owners; architects; and others through public-private partnerships that benefit stakeholders and investors. The firm has developed over $25 million worth of projects since 2005.
I hopped into Neidich’s car with him at his office on Front Street, overlooking the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg. The vehicle ran quietly as we started to back out. Then it dawned on me that it was a Toyota Prius, a hybrid. Of course, I thought; this fits the picture. We motored south on 2nd St. and turned left on Reily St. and took it to 3rd St. “This is an underinvested area,” Neidich revealed. He explained how the city put in Forster St. awhile back as a main thoroughfare. “It separated this area, and this side of it went down hill.”
This is midtown Harrisburg, the focus of much of GreenWorks Development’s work. The capitol building, with its gold dome, looms south in the distance in the downtown area. “We have assembled about 14 acres of ground here. We bought a bunch of buildings and land and revitalized those buildings,” Neidich says. “We started with a relatively disinvested area. It was a mess when we started. There were abandoned cars and buildings and you name it.”
As we walk along the sidewalk, Neidich comments on what they’ve achieved to date and peeks at the future. “We have 400,000 square feet of revitalized space. We plan to put in parking garages, shops, and apartments in the future. We want to create an educational corridor from 3rd St. toward the capitol.” He adds, “It’s been fun. We’re getting there, and it’s making a difference in the city.”
In Neidich’s plan, education is a driving force in the redevelopment work. “Education is the only way to revitalize a city. It’s not about building buildings. It’s not about trying to artificially bring businesses in or bring restaurants, shops, and amenities in. If you don’t have an educational base, you don’t have a city. You can’t bring businesses in effectively when there’s no educational base to support that.”
Neidich started his college training at Georgia Tech, but he got married and had kids and wanted to be closer to home. He returned to Harrisburg and took a year and a half off and went to work at AMP, now Tyco Electronics, a manufacturer of electronic connectors. After that, he went to Penn State and earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1980.
At AMP. Neidich says he worked as a manufacturing engineer. “I paid attention to what the development engineers were doing and decided I’d rather do that when I graduated. So when I went back to Penn State to finish my degree, I fine-tuned myself in terms of the kinds of things I wanted to do when I got out, so I specialized in that stuff, and it worked out well. There’s a lot of value to a co-op and internship position.” That’s an understatement when you consider how it set Neidich up for the ensuing stages of his career.
With degree in hand, Neidich went to work for Dupont/Berg Electronics, AMP’s competition, in nearby Lewisberry, PA. He started as a product engineer working on standard, existing products and as a maintenance engineer. He shifted to development engineering about nine months in and got to do original concept work, “which is fun. And that’s where I spent my next 30 years,” he muses. He now holds about 25 United States and numerous foreign patents in the electronic connector field.
The first project he handled at Dupont/Berg involved a connector system for Cray Research, the Seattle-based company that develops advanced supercomputers. “I worked very closely with Cray doing interconnect schemes,” Neidich recalls.
Then came a career-changing moment for Neidich at the age of 27. Cray asked him to consider starting a company to do more specific development work for them. It was an easy decision for him. He founded InterCon Systems, a developer and manufacturer of high-density, high-speed electronic connector systems.
“I loved the entrepreneurial bit, and I was interested in the opportunity to start a shop on my own and do my own development work,” Neidich relates. They started in a garage in 1987 at his ex-partner’s house and spent the first nine months there. Once they developed the first successful product and got production established, they moved into leased space and started growing the company. “Fun stuff” (he says that a lot).
The first couple of years, the startup did work exclusively for Cray, but then they expanded and started doing work for other customers and wound up with about 400 customers after ten years, becoming a $25 million a year business. Customers included giants such as HP, IBM, Motorola, Sharp, Panasonic, and Mitsubishi.
“We built specialized machines for making those connectors such as wire wrapping machines. it was tricky business,” Neidich says. It helped that his partner was a toolmaker. “We designed and built the machines and designed and built the product. Fun stuff. You gotta love engineering. Can’t imagine doing anything but that.”
Then Neidich sold InterCon Systems to the Amphenol Corporation in 2005. “We were faced with the probability of having to go over to China and doing a manufacturing satellite, and I wasn’t looking forward to doing that on my own. We wanted to align with somebody that already had that kind of international manufacturing capability.” Amphenol already had manufacturing in China, indeed all over the world, so they were able to leverage their manufacturing network.
“At the same time, over the previous 15 years or so, I had gotten emotionally to the point where I was ready to sell it,” Neidich adds. “I wanted to watch my kids grow up. I had plenty of offers over 15 years, but I was never at that point in the past. I finally got to a point where it seemed like the right thing to do.”
With cash from the sale of InterCon, Neidich proceeded to start not only GreenWorks Development but also Solarity, which evolved by happenstance. He went to State College to look at another nanotechnology business and ran into Dr. Stephen Fonash, who showed him the nano photovoltaic technology he was working on. “I had always been interested in solar,” Neidich notes. He finds himself using his background in packaging connectors for computers in packaging solar PVs. “It’s the same as solid state electronics. We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re applying nanotechnology to energy.”
Neidich’s colleagues in Solarity include Fonash as chief technology officer; he holds the Bayard D. Kunkle Chair in Engineering Sciences at Penn State and is director of the Penn State Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization. Fonash holds 29 patents in his research areas, many of which are licensed to industry. Director of Research Dr. Wook Jun Nam holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in materials engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering science and has interests in design, process development, and characterization of micro- and nano-scale structures and materials.
Although PV technology is mature with commercial panels attaining over 20-percent conversion efficiency, opportunities remain to improve their performance. Researchers all over the world are working on nano photovoltaics to optimize materials, design, and processing to reduce the cost/watt ratio. Down the road, nanotechnology versions should come about that are lower in cost and higher in efficiency than conventional ones.
The advantages of thin-film photovoltaics come in several forms. “Conventional photovoltaics are Model T technology. We gotta get more elegant,” Neidich states. Simply put, they’re bulky and heavy. Thin-film technology will yield a flexible final product that can be produced by an automated roll-to-roll process and integrated with conventional building materials such as shingles, membrane roofs, and siding. “You have to install conventional solar PVs after the fact now, after you’ve built the building,” says Neidich. “With nano, you integrate it into the design from the beginning. You can put the film anywhere you want. It becomes a mundane engineering challenge to package it. You can put it on the back of a smart phone or laptop to charge it.”
With Solarity’s LCCM (Light and Carrier Collection Management) NanoCell Architecture, a nanostructured array forms on a lower electrode, and nanodomes form around each nanostructure-array element to create the LCCM structure. These trap light as it transmits through each dome to the array and into the cell’s absorber. As an indication of how small nano gets, their PV will be on a film 1.4 mil (.0014 inches) thick with 625 million domes in a 1-centimeter area. “I think we’re very close to a commercially viable technology,” Neidich reports.
Continuing on our tour of midtown Harrisburg, Neidich further expounded on his education mission, “We brought Harrisburg Area Community College in first to bring all their trade and technical education into the city from their Wildwood campus to the north, which was phenomenal. So they now have 200,000 square feet of educational space in the city.”
We walked across the street and east down a walkway to the HACC Midtown I building, one of the buildings that houses trades. “This used to be a road with cars, and we converted it to pedestrian only,” Neidich reveals as he points to the walkway. “It will eventually connect HACC with a new courthouse they plan to build. On this side, these are rain gardens that soak up stormwater coming off the buildings.”
We had parked in front of the Campus Square Building, occupied by Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school that is re-chartering as a bricks-and-mortar K-12, and we ventured inside. This is a new building GreenWorks built from the ground up. Neidich pointed out that it has 42.5kw of solar panels on the roof and a geothermal system with 48 wells sunk 400 feet deep and 80 heat exchangers (ground-source heat pumps) throughout the building. “We’re even doing a green roof on this one overhang section. The energy this building uses is less than half that of a comparable gas-powered one.”
These structures may serve as the signature of Neidich’s pledge to give back to his home town. Then again, he claims this is his last career stop, and he could be here awhile, so we’ll probably see many more to come. Future buildings will probably feature thin-film photovoltaic panels, bringing Neidich’s career full circle.
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