The Digital Skeptic: Patience Is the New Black in Domestic Manufacturing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Joel Domino has the secret to making money while making things that screen and device giants such as Samsung and Apple ( AAPL) don't.

"What I learned is, the regulations have an effect. The expertise is part of it. The right vendors are important," Domino told me a few weeks back, as we talked over his company's radical new liquid crystal display. "But at the end of the day, you have to have patient investors."

"We are in the heart of a new ecosystem for screens in Ohio. The story of what it took to get that all in place has not been told," he said.

The technology
Domino is president of tiny Kent Displays, the Kent, Ohio-based interactive LCD maker. No, friends, that's no misprint. Domino really does make real money building world-beating displays, not in Chongqing, but 35 miles southeast of Cleveland. In mid-2012, Kent announced a second production line for its interactive LCDs. And a Kent spokesman, Kevin Oswald, confirmed to me that the 100-person firm makes about a million screens a year and that growth in "the past few years has averaged about 50%."

Domino sketched out for me what makes Kent unique on the back of a piece of scrap graph paper. The company pioneered a process that avoids the billion-dollar infrastructure needed to cut stiff screens from large plates of glass, as Samsung might. Kent engineered a simpler method in which two plastic substrates are fed continuously off separate rolls and pressed together. Liquid crystal is then spread inside this substrate/liquid crystal sandwich, sealed and cut into screen slugs by a laser.

"We have one person at the front of the line, one person at the back of the line," Domino said. "And that is pretty much it."

Analysts confirm that Kent defines a new generation of radically lower-cost screen technologies that can display and store hand-drawn information, making tiny Kent a rare bit of good news in the huge -- but surprisingly profit challenged -- global screen and device business.

"Emerging display companies like Kent are a drop of rain compared to Samsung," Sweta Dash told me over the phone. Dash has spent 25 years studying the screen market as the senior director of display research and strategy at IHS iSuppli, based in El Segundo, Calif. Dash says that screen giants such as Samsung may sell $85 billion to $125 billion worth of screens a year, but "those plants have been losing money for the last six to eight quarters ... which makes new technologies like Kent's attractive."

A key product has been the cool Boogie Board paperless writing tablet. "We were careful not to compete with Samsung or Apple to start," Domino said. "But eventually this process will be in a much wider variety of displays."

Venture Capital 2.0
Domino's secret? As much as anything else, being skeptical about accessing the traditional forms of capital that have fueled much of what does not work in the declining digital age.

"Kent Displays is not backed by your traditional VC," Domino explained. He said that while his company has landed government contracts and grants and sells into retail stores such as Brookstone, essentially Kent grew from the imagination of one man: Bill Manning.

Manning is not Peyton's or Eli's uncle. Rather, he -- along with financier Bill Napier -- founded Manning & Napier ( MN), an investment advisory firm the company says manages $44.3 billion as of Q3 2012.

But Shannon Lappin, who fields my sort of journalistic questions at the firm, said Kent Displays "isn't an investment held specifically by Manning & Napier Advisors." In other words, traditional capital takes no credit for creating Kent.

Rather, the screen maker spun out of Manning's pure passion for interactive LCD displays.

"Which is what you need," Domino said.

When I pressed Domino for what investors can learn from Kent when considering the next Kent like opportunity in domestic-made high technology, he was clear: The normal venture-backed, bank-backed, fund-backed approach to tech will probably not be the big winning bet.

"Sure, it took time to get the right parts to work with our system," he said, and local resources such as the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University helped. But again Domino is clear: The secret to Kent Displays was Bill Manning's choice to create Kent Displays.

"He just handed us the money and said, 'Go do this,'" Domino said. "And he stuck with us ... He decided that this technology should be brought to the world. And it was."

"It was not easy. But now that the parts are there, we are growing," he said.

Domino can't see a reason why this model can't work in any other industry. And friends, neither can I.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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