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A regional effort can build Long Island

Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor of the University

Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor of the University of California San Diego, speaks at the Farmingdale State College, where results of the Long Island Index were released (Jan. 18, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

The Long Island Index delivered both good and bad news yesterday. Its survey showed that 61 percent of Long Islanders are having problems paying their rent or mortgages. But in rolling out its ninth annual report, the Index -- a data-gathering project of the Rauch Foundation -- held out hope that we may finally be on the verge of a regional collaboration to create a high-tech cluster like Boston or San Diego.

That kind of breakthrough could bring an influx of high-paying jobs and prosperous new firms that could bear more of the property tax burden, so that homeowners don't have to pay as much. And there's a broad consensus that high-tech and biotech firms are what we need.

We already have top-flight research institutions -- Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System -- plus institutions on the rise in research, like Hofstra University and Farmingdale State College, where the Index presented its report.

What we don't yet have -- and can't succeed without -- is a cohesive regional effort to link science with venture capital and new firms that arise from research done right here. Without that collaboration, we'll continue to create exciting new businesses that leave Long Island, growing to maturity -- and paying taxes -- elsewhere.

The Accelerate Long Island initiative, often mentioned at the event, offers hope. We like its purpose, to build bring together science and business to grow and keep high-tech companies here, but a year has passed since it was announced. Our leading business group, the Long Island Association, has been incubating it, but the pace has been frustratingly slow. Now, with all the preliminaries finally done, what Accelerate needs is an inspirational, effective leader to bring it to life. That can't happen soon enough.

The Accelerate board was smart to meet after the Index event with its keynote speaker, Mary Walshok, a University of California sociologist, to explore how she helped create Connect, a San Diego initiative that inspired Accelerate. In her keynote, Walshok told of the postwar bust as the defense industry declined, then described Connect's work linking San Diego's growing number of researchers with businesses. It led the way to prosperity: 3,000 firms in software and wireless, 260 in defense and security, 600 in life science and biomedical, 700 in energy and environmental, and 600 in innovative sports products.

Long Island has research and other assets that San Diego did not have at the start. It also has obstacles that the Index has persistently explored over the years: high taxes, the exodus of the young, lack of the rental housing that they need, and too many units of government. It's a very desirable place to live. But we can't reach our full potential without a concerted regional push to build an innovation culture.

Accelerate must get it rolling. It's time for the board and its chairman, LIA president Kevin Law, to find and hire the high-energy leader that this task requires. The Accelerate board must push relentlessly -- and with a sense of urgency -- to find the right person.

If San Diego can create high-tech prosperity, so can we.