New York in the World: the home of Kodak tries to reinvent itself

Aug 22, 2013

As more and more young people flock to the world’s largest cities, smaller cities have had to struggle to keep up. Perhaps nowhere has this played out more dramatically than New York, a state housing one of the world’s most tempting urban centers.  But there are young people who do move to New York City, only to discover - sometimes to their own surprise - that success can be found back home.

Robert Anstey didn’t expect to come back to western New York. Born in Buffalo, Anstey, 32, worked in Montreal, London, Boston and New York. Now, he and his partners are building a tech company in Rochester.

“You have all these standards of living that people forget - how easy it was to get around, the cost of living,” Anstey said.

But what really brought Robert Anstey back to western New York was more than a good commute. It was an opportunity -- to build a business along with his three partners, all of whom once worked for Kodak.

If Kodak made enough film to go around the moon and back 10 times, then there’s no reason we can’t use the same infrastructure to really bring on the smart grid and advanced transportation and advanced energy storage,” he said.

That is Anstey’s vision of the future for his small company. It is Rochester’s vision of its future, built on new technologies just as it was in  glorious past.

Could Rochester ever become a mini-New York City, or even a mini-SiliconValley in attracting that critical mass of talent and investment again?

“Well, I think from an asset standpoint, one of the most powerful things for the region is the quality of the workforce,” said Mark Peterson, head of Greater Rochester Enterprise. “With eighteen colleges and universities, including two major research universities, the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, we have a work force that is really able to respond to the needs of high-tech businesses that are being recruited to the region and that are growing in the region.”

Pro-Rochester sign inside offices of Greater Rochester Enterprise
Pro-Rochester sign inside offices of Greater Rochester Enterprise
Credit Sidsel Overgaard

And then there is the question of money – how do you get people to invest in startups that aren’t located in one of the usual places?

“Venture funding is not an easy play in the upstate market, certainly in the greater Rochester region, even though we produce a high percentage of patents per capita, even though there’s a huge amount of intellectual property here to invest in very often we struggle to get companies that A-round of funding that is needed to have them really grow and prosper,” Peterson said.

Robert Anstey knows that investment capital may be more plentiful elsewhere, but he believes he does not need as much of it since he is one of many startup companies using the facilities at the Eastman Business Park, the former vast Kodak manufacturing plant in Rochester.

“I think what people have to adjust in their mind is a paradigm shift of why do you raise money?  You raise money to build infrastructure, to build a factory, to build your business.  Well, you don’t need the money if you have what the money was going to buy anyway,” Anstey said.

But like any city in New York state, Rochester needs more than skilled workers, investment and infrastructure. It needs jobs. Many of the businesses of today and the future do not need as many workers as the high employment industries of the past.

Bill Johnson came to Rochester in 1972,  and served three terms as the city’s mayor, before joining the faculty of the Rochester Institute of Technology. His view of the future?

“Yes, we do have these new companies coming aboard and they are creating you know five, 10 or 20 jobs which doesn’t even come close to matching the need,” he said. “We’re training students to come up with new technologies that will actually displace more and more people. I mean in the name of progress that is wonderful but then you have to ask yourself ultimately how do we intend to support all of these people. You know I know the question I just don’t know the answer.”