The job shouldn't be tough: Build a new economic ecosystem for Long Island, to compete with Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128, and the emerging Tech Valley cluster in Albany. How long could it take? Six months? A year?
Only kidding. Actually, growing and keeping enough high-tech firms in our region to match the success of a Silicon Valley will take a generation. But the effort is vital for the solid middle-class jobs and economic strength it can produce for the region and the state.
That's the task that the new leadership team of the Accelerate Long Island initiative will begin to tackle, starting this week. Former Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko will be executive director. His deputy will be Stacey Epifane Sikes, his deputy chief of staff in Brookhaven.
Lesko was a major moving force behind Accelerate. It's a coalition of the Island's major research institutions: Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Hofstra University, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and Stony Brook University, plus CA Technologies and Canrock Ventures, a venture capital fund. The partners will put up the operating funds for Accelerate for the initial three years.
The Long Island Association, our largest business organization, incorporated Accelerate, set up its board, and will provide in-kind services, such as office space. So, as Lesko and Sikes begin their daunting task, they have the basics needed to operate. Eventually, Accelerate should grow independent of the LIA, just as the Long Island Housing Partnership did.
The difficult balancing act is to remain at it for the long haul, and find ways of showing progress in the short term.
The key early metric of progress will be investment dollars. Venture capital, much of it originating in New York City, has a way of flying over Long Island and landing in the pockets of new companies elsewhere. Lesko has to identify the reasons for that gloomy reality and find ways to fix it.
For starters, Accelerate has $1.25 million to invest in new firms: $500,000 through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, plus $750,000 from the new Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund.
But Lesko and Sikes must come up with significant venture capital beyond that seed money -- and relatively soon, to show that Accelerate is generating quantifiable buzz.
They also have to create a culture of collaboration -- no small job. The partners in Accelerate are high-powered institutions with their own needs and plans. During the long incubation period, Kevin Law, the president of the LIA, was able to keep them all rowing in the same direction. Now that job falls to Lesko, who showed good cat-herding skills on the Brookhaven Town Board.
The push begins tomorrow, when the accelerateli.org website goes live, and Lesko starts looking for researchers and companies with exciting ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit, matching them with the venture capital they need to get going.
This task is a bit like planting redwoods: You can't expect to be around when they grow to full height. But someone has to sow the seeds, nurture them, and prove they're starting to bloom right. That's Lesko's job, and he has to stick with it for a good stretch, and not succumb to the temptation to return to politics too soon. His excitement for Accelerate is encouraging. Now, before long, he must show us some hopeful shoots of baby redwoods sprouting.