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Opinion

Group effort to rev up economy

Photo Credit: Tim Foley Illustration

Losing both young people and young companies is not exactly a prescription for a healthy Long Island economy. Now, at least, we're on the verge of making progress on one of the two: spawning and keeping high-tech companies here.

To stop being a net exporter of start-up firms, and to make Long Island competitive, as President Barack Obama urged the nation to be competitive in his State of the Union speech last week, we'll have to harness business and our uniquely powerful axis of research institutions together.

One promising step is Accelerate Long Island, an initiative announced on Tuesday by Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko, key research institutions and the Island's leading business organization, the Long Island Association. Another is an effort by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to position Long Island to win new federal grants for innovation.

The core idea of Accelerate Long Island is to establish better permanent links between idea-producing researchers and business leaders who know how to write business plans, raise capital and bring products to market. That will take time, but for now, the array of logos at the top of the Accelerate announcement was itself an impressive achievement.

In addition to the LIA and the town, it included Stony Brook University and Hofstra University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, and the Hofstra-North Shore-LIJ Medical School. The text mentioned North Shore's Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, which believes it doesn't get the respect it deserves for its clinical research. Pulling them all together was a major feat of scientific cat-herding.

Another sharp departure from the past was a Brookhaven supervisor emerging from that town's perennial political scrum to focus at a high level on science and economic development. Last year, Lesko hosted a reception honoring scientists who received patents in 2009. Then he began meeting with the researchers, the LIA, the Rauch Foundation and others, on the complexities of commercializing scientific discoveries.

One key decision Lesko made was not to start from scratch, but to emulate the best practices of proven business-science collaborations, such as Connect in San Diego and BioGenerator in St. Louis. He got the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency to pay for a consultant who had led innovation and economic development elsewhere: Doug Henton, chairman and chief executive of Silicon Valley-based Collaborative Economics. He looked at the Island's strengths and weaknesses and crafted a strategy for turning energy, biotech and communications breakthroughs into viable companies here.

The result is Accelerate Long Island, which will be a complex structure with many moving parts, but simple aims: Give entrepreneurs and scientists an online way of keeping track of technology innovations and start-up firms. Provide hands-on help from Hofstra and Stony Brook students, and entrepreneurs-in-residence, to guide new companies in creating business plans and marketing strategies. Build a Long Island Seed Fund, to raise money from multiple sources and fill gaps in the funding of start-up firms.

One pivotal suggestion came from James Simons, who turned his math genius into a highly successful hedge fund and has been a major Stony Brook benefactor. He suggested that the best place for this initiative would be at the LIA. There's a precedent: The Long Island Housing Partnership started out at the LIA, then became successful on its own. Once the association's board approves, Accelerate Long Island would begin as an LIA committee, and its staff would use the association's facilities. Nurturing its initial stages would be an excellent way for the LIA president, Kevin Law, to make a lasting mark.

 

Schumer's contribution has been to nudge the big players. For three years, the leaders of Stony Brook, BNL and Cold Spring Harbor had talked about creating a research alliance to enhance their individual strengths. It was a useful idea, which then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer supported. But his exit didn't help. Nor did the state's deficit. The institutions wanted $30 million to launch the alliance, but state budget woes made that impossible. The effort has increased collaboration, but has fallen short of producing a fully realized alliance.

Now Schumer wants the institutions to spread their wings and work more closely with the business community. Late last year, Congress reauthorized the America Competes Act, which funds science. The new act authorizes $300 million for "regional innovation clusters." To make plans to compete for that money, Schumer met at Stony Brook on Jan. 10 with the heads of the three institutions, Simons and Leo Guthart of Topspin Partners, a Long Island venture capital firm. Then he wrote to the new White House working group on clusters, asking them to visit Long Island. Clearly, a strong alliance with business, like the one Accelerate envisions, would position the institutions better to get a share of that funding.

To flourish, Accelerate Long Island needs a top-notch full-time leader, to build the elements of the plan. It needs to become even more inclusive. For example: Farmingdale State College, which collaborates with Stony Brook on research, should be invited. And it will need Lesko and Schumer to stay involved - and other public officials to realize its importance and pitch in. There's no guarantee it will succeed, but without it, our current course is guaranteed to fail. hN

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