LG proposes bringing idea factory to West Virginia

West Virginia officials are excited about a newly announced partnership with the international powerhouse LG, but it’s a challenge to explain what that will be like.

LG is a household name because its products are likely to be in your household: televisions, home theater systems, refrigerators, washing machines.

In West Virginia, though, LG’s product will be ideas.

“These people are smart people. These people have got their act together,” Gov. Jim Justice said during a $700 million announcement this week. “They didn’t get to where they are by being just dodos. They got where they are by being smart.”

So for LG, that means diverting a bit from its successful track record and laying down some risk on new knowledge sectors. The branch of the company that is establishing West Virginia roots is a relatively new operation called LG NOVA, which stands for LG Electronics’ North America Innovation Center.

LG NOVA says it is “building new ventures to tackle world challenges, bring positive change and create a better life.”

So, it’s a Silicon Valley mindset, coming to the hills of West Virginia and partnering with, among others, the Vantage Ventures business innovation outreach at West Virginia University.

Rather than rolling products off an assembly line, the 275 or so employees for LG NOVA in West Virginia are meant to be investing in knowledge.

The investment is described as a strategic initiative to grow new business ventures in West Virginia and advance the development of technologies for renewable energy, healthcare and industries of the future.

One of LG’s West Virginia partners is Marshall University, where President Brad Smith was once chief executive of Intuit, the Silicon Valley financial software company.

LG NOVA will focus its efforts on a range of sectors, said Smith, speaking on MetroNews’ “Talkline.

“They have a distinctive commitment at providing high-value, impactful digital products and services to solve problems the world is wrestling with. And everybody and their brother was vying for LG NOVA to choose them as a location,” Smith said.

“What it means is, we’re going to have the ability to focus $700 million worth of investment, creating several hundred high-value jobs to focus on things like digital health, clean tech, artificial intelligence and, in particular, to show that rural markets can lead the way in these efforts.”

Those initiatives can build, Smith said.

“LG NOVA is going to be bringing critical mini-business units to come in and help develop the next-generation of capabilities in areas like digital health and clean tech,” he said.

“In addition to that, they have over 3,000 partner companies that they work with, and we’re going to try to get some of those — 10, 20, 30 to come in and co-locate next to them and help them solve these problems in West Virginia and then throughout Appalachia and around the globe.”

Venture Beat, which covers venture capital and tech, interviewed Sokwoo Rhee, executive vice president of innovation at LG Electronics, about the West Virginia initiative. The interview highlighted plans to work not only with the state and higher education institutions but also the WVU Medicine. The conversation also underscored West Virginia’s economic traditions built on coal and industry — and its lack of tech startups.

Rhee envisioned gaining a foothold in West Virginia that can then grow regionally and beyond.

“It starts as a regional effort, but it’s not just regional in West Virginia,” Rhee said in the interview with VentureBeat. “I will say that’s just the beginning of the much bigger initiative. The way we see this, especially the sectors that we are focusing on digital health and clean tech, which includes renewable energy and so on, it is extremely important to work with organizations that have a broader reach.”

He continued by saying, “It makes total sense for us to partner with the state government and start deploying the solutions. We see a lot of opportunities. We work with the state government, we deploy and we test out and we help out with the infrastructure. And we benefit from it from the business perspective. But at the same time, West Virginia gets a benefit because they become the first state to adopt such advanced technologies to help out their residents.”

Local leaders in West Virginia are just starting to consider the potential.

“There will be growth in technologies, and therefore, new companies will be developed from that. It’s significant; it really helps put West Virginia on the map in a significant way,” said Russ Rogerson, president and chief executive of the Morgantown Area Partnership, speaking on WAJR Radio’s “Talk of the Town”

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, has been an advocate for alternative energy and diversifying the economy, so he sees potential emerging technologies like the ones LG aims to explore.

“We’re showing promise toward diversifying our economy so we can thrive in the future, and I’m particularly excited that the investment should support renewable energy tech start-ups in West Virginia,” Hansen told WAJR.

LG’s presence adds to the economic portfolio, specifically in technology sectors, Hansen said.

“For so many years people never thought about West Virginia as a place to make those investments,” he said, “and I think this is an important signal to investors and entrepreneurs that they should take a strong look.”