There’s a perennial debate as to whether ‘sister city’ arrangements have any tangible impact on inward investment. Such results are often hard to quantify given that city-to-city links take years to flourish and it may not always be clear whether cross-fertilisation of the partner cities’ economies is happening. But officials in eastern Idaho, a remote mountainous area of the western US, can point to one recent FDI success from a twinning relationship, in the form of a small project that they hope will have a big impact on their corner of the state.

A friendly welcome

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Takashi Suzuki, president and CEO of Tokyo-based aluminium casting company Sakae Casting, joined a Japanese delegation visiting Idaho in March 2016 because a partner company with which his company works closely is headquartered in Tokai-Mura, a sister city to Idaho Falls. Having previously only ever visited major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, Mr Suzuki says he was struck by how “kind, enthusiastic and helpful” people in Idaho were. “So many people reached out to us and they genuinely wanted to help our business succeed,” he recalls.

Mr Suzuki’s Idahoan hosts encouraged him to attend US federal FDI summit SelectUSA later that year, where further discussions took place. Not swayed by the promotional efforts of higher profile states on display at the summit, Mr Suzuki subsequently selected Idaho Falls as the location for Sakae Casting’s first US office, which will focus on R&D. The final decision was made after a return visit to Idaho, where Sakae Casting representatives met with potential partners, including the University of Idaho, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and local advanced manufacturing companies.

Hub and spoke

Sakae Casting specialises in castings for inserting stainless steel pipes into an aluminium casting product, necessary for the optimal performance of semi-conductors and supercomputers. The company liked the idea of being able to work directly with the university, INL – a leading nuclear research facility for the US – and the region’s extensive nuclear and advanced manufacturing sectors to further its research capabilities and US product sales. “This will be a technological hub for us, and we’re hoping to work with the local universities on joint programmes and to commercialise some of the products that may come from these collaborative efforts,” says Mr Suzuki.

Sakae’s presence is currently small, consisting of only a few employees, but growth plans are in the works. “It is my mission to create job opportunities in eastern Idaho to support the strong science, research and education sectors,” Mr Suzuki said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facility in April 2017. “Additional employment opportunities will be created as we expand our business by working with our Japanese partner Ohzen to connect Japanese services and technologies with US markets. We’re excited to have our first US presence in eastern Idaho.”

Ohzen is the company based in Idaho Falls’ twin city in Japan, which started the relationship off. Executive director Takenori Omiya also sees merit in matching smaller Japanese companies with smaller, less populated US states where they can receive greater attention and support than in the overcrowded urban centres. “As small or medium-sized companies, we cannot make massive investments that get headlines but we can bring in so much technology and knowhow,” he says. “So in terms of attracting investments, states should focus on companies [such as ours] because we’re very much interested, and if the environment is welcoming for us we are open to listening.”