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How to become a high-tech cluster in 3 easy steps

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Zack Seward
ARPA-E Deputy Director Eric Toone speaking about his agency's "high risk, high reward" approach to alternative energy.

Eric Toone from the Department of Energy's ARPA-E division was at the University of Rochester last night

We covered his talk on national policy around alternative energy innovation.

But we also took the opportunity to ask him what he thinks it takes to become a regional hotbed for innovation. He's got a three step plan - and the third one might surprise you.

During his talk, Toone displayed a map of where all the ARPA-E funded projects are located. We're talking about everything from mini wind turbines mounted on kites, to kelp cultivation for more efficient biofuels, to new techniques for drastically reducing the cost of solar

Toone noted that the projects that ARPA-E has funded are all over the country. But he also pointed out that clusters emerge on the map.

No surprise, they're the San Francisco Bay Area, North Carolina's Research Triangle, and Boston/Cambridge.

Clearly, upstate New York would love to be on that list. And while upstate does have two ARPA-E funded projects (both in the Albany area, one based out of GE), a full-fledged cluster it does not make. (By comparison, the Research Triangle had five ARPA-E projects. The Boston area had nine.)

The clusters piqued my interest. And I thought Toone could offer some insight into what it takes to become one. Here are three key ingredients that Toone came up with on the spot:

1. Bright ideas

Presumably the most important ingredient: You need a source of bright ideas. Top-notch universities and companies that can afford research and development are the usual suspects here.

2. Access to money

To make those ideas count, you've got to have money. It's good to be near a banking center. And it's good to have venture capitalists around.

3. A good airport

The dark horse candidate: You've got to have a good airport to keep venture capitalists happy! Toone says you want to make it as easy as possible for investors to stay on the same page as the projects they're funding.

Listen to Toone explain it better than I can:


WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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