Douzinas: The road back to our innovation legacy

The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. Photo Credit:

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Long Island can be a driving force of science and innovation in the world's greatest metro area. It once was; it can be again.

We need to reclaim that legacy, which made Long Island a world leader in aviation for most of the 20th century. We should take advantage of our research, medical and educational institutions to promote a culture of science and innovation that distinguishes Long Island from the region while tying us more closely to it.

That culture should build upon our centers of excellence, including Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the North Shore-LIJ Health System, and the medical schools at Stony Brook and Hofstra universities. It should embrace scientific research, foster start-ups and incubate new businesses.

For guidance, we can look to Victor Hwang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-author of "The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley."

He says innovation ecosystems are like rainforests rather than cropland -- that they thrive not because of the mere presence of assets but because of the way in which elements mix together to create new and unexpected flora and fauna. That mixing is enhanced by the culture of a place.

"Silicon Valley has a culture that encourages people with diverse skills and experiences to meet and trust each other and to take a chance together," writes Hwang. "That culture is ingrained because crucial keystone institutions, from entrepreneurs to attorneys to venture capital firms, generally treat the community as more important than the 'winning' of any individual transaction. It is a culture based on, among other things, seeking fairness, not advantage."

Long Island's potential culture would have three components to its infrastructure:

Physical: Build on the asset of the Long Island Rail Road, improving its capacity to connect us with each other and the region, and enhancing transit-related downtowns.

Institutional: Strengthen institutions such as Accelerate Long Island and the Long Island Forum for Technology, and support their initiatives. The recent news that Accelerate Long Island has forged an alliance with the region's largest venture capital firm, Topspin Partners, is the kind of collaboration that should be encouraged.

Personal: Continue to encourage entrepreneurial "ecosystems" like Thought Box -- soon be on the LIU Post campus -- where technology start-ups collaborate to solve business challenges. They can provide networking and mentoring opportunities.

Although aircraft are no longer manufactured in their entirety on Long Island, "approximately 240 companies remain on Long Island producing a wide variety of parts for virtually every American aircraft that flies," according to Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. That's an often-overlooked resource for innovation.

In addition, students at Long Island high schools have won a disproportionate number of Intel Science Awards. In the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, for example, Long Island produced 61 semi-finalists -- more than 20 percent of the national total of 300. And for the second year a George W. Hewlett High School team won the Seimens math and science competition. That talent is an extraordinary resource that can be crucial as we build the science-literate workforce of tomorrow.

Long Island has unique strengths in science and innovation that are world-class and unrivaled. Building a culture of science and innovation -- and the infrastructure to support it -- can restore our legacy as a world leader and the high-paying jobs that go with that.

Nancy Rauch Douzinas is president of the Garden City-based Rauch Foundation.

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