Union in the News for September 12, 2004
Little Engines That Could
By Brian McGuire - The Daily Gazette
Troy -Nearly 25 years have passed since a group of area businessmen and academics got together in Troy to see how Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could be put to use as a driver of the regional economy.
The group, which included former RPI president George Low, industrialists Ken Lally, Harry Apkarian and others, had witnessed a decades-long decline in manufacturing in the area and a corresponding decrease in population. They knew that reversing the trend would require radical change. And they knew it would have to begin soon.
The idea they came up with - to join the intellectual and physical assets of RPI with the community around it in such a way that students could expect to find good local jobs after graduation and the region could slowly build a technology economy - was simple in theory but would be tough to pull off.
Yet after a week of festivities in which RPI showcased not only its own new technology assets but those of the entire region, the early thinking of that group appears to have been prescient. The regional economy is today more than ever centered around its universities. And the shift didn't happen by chance.
"Tech Valley didn't happen yesterday," Mike Wacholder, the director of the Rensselaer Technology Park and a member of that early group said. "This has been going on for 25 years."
Theory put to the test
The first concrete step toward realizing the plan, Wacholder said, was the establishment of RPI's business incubator. RPI officials and trustees were willing to consider the new plan, but wanted to test out the theory first. If the incubator worked, they would consider funding a technology park.
It did. Less than one year after the incubator opened, Wacholder recalled, the trustees had all the proof they needed to begin development of the Rensselaer Technology Park off Route 4 in North Greenbush, the area's first university-backed campus devoted solely to the growth of technology firms. "The incubator was a very quick success," Wacholder recalled. "It was clear to us very quickly in terms of the response we got that it would nurture new enterprise and the trustees, seeing that, didn't hesitate to make the investment in the tech park."
The new technology park was not without its critics. U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, an early supporter of the plan, said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., last week that after he helped secure state funds to build a highway exit leading to the park in the early '80s, one local newspaper referred to the project in a headline as "the road to nowhere."
"I remember very clear one of the local newspapers ran some article on pork-barrel projects and they cited this exit as the lead example," McNulty said. "It said '[State Senator] Bruno and McNulty fund road to nowhere,' which was pretty catchy. And accurate, because there was nothing there. It was an act of faith on our part based on the belief that George Low could pull it off."
McNulty, who was one of several speakers featured at a two-day conference on innovation at RPI last week that included prominent U.S. business leaders and government officials, said recent area investments in technology at Albany NanoTech, University Heights, the University at Albany's East Campus and RPI, could all be traced to the technology park.
"The granddaddy of them all was George Low's vision for the tech park," he said.
At the RPI conference last week, local officials spoke repeatedly about collaboration among government, industry and academia as the key to the region's technology growth. They said such collaborations have been successful here because of the proximity of state government, a number of colleges and universities, and a long tradition of technological innovation here.
Why did it take so long to recognize the potential of the area's educational institutions? Kelly Lovell, president of the Center for Economic Growth, said economic developers in the region had always viewed colleges and universities as a strong asset, but only began to notice their full potential fairly recently.
"We've always known that having these institutions in the region is very important economically," Lovell said. "But as far as viewing them as an economic engine, we hadn't exploited them as a resource in any meaningful way."
That began to change, Lovell said, when the University at Albany was named the headquarters of Focus NY, a consortium of universities in New York that, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Georgia Tech University, were asked in 1998 to conduct advanced research for the Semiconductor Industry Association.
It was that project that led to a cascade of more recent investments from IBM, International Sematech, Tokyo Electron, and other industry players at the University at Albany and which helped cement in the minds of local residents and business leaders the idea that a technology economy was not only possible here but well under way.
"[Before the Focus Center] we had always thought of the universities as serving the student population, but this was an example of a university serving the region," Lovell said. "People looked at the size of that investment and thought, 'Maybe there is more here to pay attention to.' "
Industry leaders have played a key role. John E. Kelly III, an Albany native and alumnus of Union College and RPI who is now in charge of global technology research at IBM, is a major force behind that company's investments at the University at Albany, RPI and Union College.
In a speech at the RPI conference on innovation last week, Kelly recounted IBM's own realization of the need to collaborate with government and industry partners on research in an increasingly competitive marketplace. After the talk, he said New York state and the Capital Region have come to play increasingly important role in the downstate company's own strategic plans.
"It [the Capital Region] is very critical to us now and it's of growing importance," Kelly said. "Over the last decade we've been increasing our investment here because we think there's a tremendous amount of brainpower here.
"At Albany, we are focused on semiconductors, nanotechnology and materials. At Rensselaer, we're focused on high-speed communications technology, and at Union College we're looking at the interaction of all these technologies with the social sciences and liberal arts. We feel very fortunate to have these three great institutions nearby."
Bill Schwarz, director of corporate and government relations at Union College, said collaborating with companies such as IBM and with other colleges and universities in the area has become increasingly important to Union. He said the internships and jobs that come from such partnerships not only make recruiting easier, but also help build the area as a destination.
"We sell location much more now than we used to," Schwarz said. "[For] too long we told people Boston was nearby or New York City was nearby, that you only have to spend a couple hours and you're not here anymore. And when students come here and have great opportunities for a career we can overcome some of the traditional reasons for why people don't stay." Colleges and universities have become economic engines, but they've also spent heavily to improve the neighborhoods surrounding their campuses. Above, Union College renovated a row of houses on Seward Place adjacent to the campus in Schenectady.
Seward Place across from Union College
Karthik Bala, chief executive officer of Vicarious Visions, addresses a conference on innovation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Bala's company was launched at the RPI incubator and has expanded locally. University officials hope to hold onto campus entrepreneurs and help their companies remain in the Capital Region.