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What New York's 'innovation network' might look like


When Gov. Andrew Cuomo put forward his economic development agenda in his State of the State address in early January, he outlined his plans to grow innovation and entrepreneurship. He spoke of a new venture capital fund, the commercialization of academic research and providing support for startups.

When he talked about the need to bring more academic research to the marketplace - a linchpin of regional economic growth - Cuomo pointed to a program in San Diego that has 25 years doing just that. It's called CONNECT.

Since being formed in 1985, CONNECT has assisted in the development of 3,000 companies in southern California, according the group's CEO Duane Roth. CONNECT formed on the campus of the University of California San Diego at a time when defense spending, a major element of San Diego's economy at the time, was declining.

Upstate New York is in a similar position. The state is still working to redefine its post-industrial economy, but schools like the Rochester Institute of Technology and Cornell University bring in millions of dollars of academic research.

More than "just publishing papers"

CONNECT in San Diego works with engineers and scientists doing federally funded research on college campuses and tries to connect them with companies - startups or much larger ones - that could turn their work into a sellable product. Or if those researchers want to become entrepreneurs themselves, they'll help with that too, Roth says.

"So instead of just publishing papers with findings, asking the question 'could this lead to a new, innovative product?' And if that were the case, could we mentor them and get them ready to get that idea funded so they could take it towards the commercial market," Roth explains.

CONNECT has since become its own nonprofit effort, relying on membership dues from potential investors and interested companies. Roth says by keeping people from every level of the process involved, it makes sure everyone "has skin in the game."

"So we did it the way where everybody was not only supporting the organization financially, but also supporting it by getting actively engaged in our programs, mentoring, and doing all of the things that we do," he says.

New York may have a challenge in creating that same type of environment since its network will be government-run.

National network

CONNECT operates on a smaller scale than what Cuomo envisions for his state-wide Innovation New York Network, but a state-wide network would be smaller than what some analysts are calling for.

The Brookings Institution recently published a paper calling for a national network of innovation hubs. The report calls for the creation of 20 high-tech 'hubs' around the country.

The paper says: "such a build-out could at once scale-up two existing programs while packaging them appropriately as a single transformational initiative for renewing the U.S. economy."

"We have to enhance the competitiveness of the U.S. advanced industrial base to sustain any kind of U.S. economic leadership and create high quality jobs," co-author Devashree Saha told the Innovation Trail.

Saha points to Virginia as a site that has a program similar to what New York is hoping to establish.

"Huge impact"

Roth now boasts that southern California's innovation economy is responsible for 5 percent of the region's employers, 10 percent of its employees in the county and a quarter of the area's payroll.

"That's why it has had such a huge impact here, but that happened all in 30 years; that's not a long time," he says.

WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail
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