6:18am

Fri January 25, 2013
The Upstate Economy

Cuomo lays out innovation agenda

Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out a number of efforts in his 2013 agenda to encourage the commercialization of academic research and boost entrepreneurship, including a venture capital fund and network of incubators, which are seen as mechanisms to boost economic growth.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, the governor pointed out that New York is second only to California for research dollars flowing to its college campuses.

Where New York falls behind is turning its share the $150 billion worth of federally funded research into a marketable product.

Innovation network

"We need to change the culture in order to encourage tech transfer and commercialization of ideas across the board," he told lawmakers.

To help with that, Cuomo has his eye on a Southern California effort that’s doing a better job of that than his state.

Cuomo pointed at a program in San Diego called CONNECT; a private effort started almost three decades ago to bring together engineers and scientists on college campuses with startup companies – or turn those researchers into entrepreneurs themselves.

New York already has the hard part of the process down observes Duane Roth, CEO of CONNECT.

"You don’t have to take decades to build up research excellence. You already got that," he says. "Can you quickly now organize so that you can make commercializing these ideas a priority and bring all the resources to bear on that? But the hard ones you already got: people, money, research."

In its 27 years, CONNECT has helped launch 3,000 companies or new ideas, according to Roth. To help see those kinds of results, Cuomo has proposed the Innovation NY Network. It would be a state-wide, state-run, effort modeled on CONNECT.

Cuomo has tapped three people to help form the network: Dr. Tim Killeen, head of the State University of New York’s Research Foundation, Cornell University president David Skorton and investor Jim Simons.

"There are many assets that are already in play and it’s really in some senses connecting the dots and creating more of an end-to-end process for economic development," Dr. Killeen says of their work ahead.

The Innovation New York Network would be state-wide, so there will be some logistical obstacles, but Duane Roth says if New York pushes hard enough to instill a new culture of innovation, it will be successful.

Hot Spots

Cuomo is also trying to capitalize on a new culture of entrepreneurship across the state. While New York City has become a major player in the tech startup scene, upstate cities are also beginning to see more startup efforts pay off.

Efforts include Syracuse becoming the first U.S. location to host a Startup Labs competition. The lab is underway right now at the Syracuse Technology Garden, a downtown business incubator.

Under a proposal by Cuomo, the Tech Garden could become one of ten designated “Innovation Hot Spots” and become a tax-free haven for startups. According to budget plans, any company that starts out in a designated hot spot will not have to pay any taxes for five years.

It will be important for the sites to be tied to academic institutions, says Seth Mulligan, one of the directors of the Tech Garden who has been asked by the Cuomo administration to help design the program.

"Some of our best assets are the knowledge and the equipment that reside in these campuses. And anyway that we can get private sector access to those, is the better," he says.

Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils will have the final say over designating the hot spots. Mulligan says there are number of good contenders in central New York alone – including Syracuse’s Center of Excellence.

A hot spot designation would bring additional support and Mulligan says, and an increased demand for man power to run them.

"This is going to take two to three professionals being assigned to this project to get as many companies through the door as you can," he says. "You’re helping them with business development and mentorship and coaching."

Cuomo’s budget lays out $1.25 million to help the first designated hot spots get up and running, with that amount growing to $5 million as the program expands.

Venture fund

But Cuomo wants to spend a lot more than that to help see new companies grow.  New York struggles in bringing in venture capital – money from private investors.

To help counter that, the Cuomo administration proposed a $50 million state-run venture capital fund. The fund would be administered by Empire State Development and paid for through the New York Power Authority.

New York currently attracts only 4 percent of the country’s venture capital, compared to California’s 47 percent. The state fund probably won’t close that formidable gap, but Mulligan says any amount will help.

When you have a region that has, like most of upstate, has trouble getting to those funds, any increase is going to go miles," Mulligan says.

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