Since Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed the Capital Region’s first high-tech business incubator in the 1980, they have proliferated. Today entrepreneurs and start-up companies can get low-cost operating space at Union College and Union Graduate College in Schenectady, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, Siena College and Watervliet Arsenal, among other places.
There have been some notable successes, such as Intermagnetics and MapInfo, and plenty of failures (which are to be expected in the high-tech world). What there hasn’t been is collaboration among the incubators, something the Center for Economic Growth in Albany wants to foster with its new Accelerate 518 program announced last week.
The center’s point man for the effort, Pete Pritchard, seems right when he says the time is right. After years of hype, “Tech Valley” has finally become a reality, with the success of the nanotechnology complex at UAlbany (which will soon get a $4.4 billion investment from a new consortium headed by Intel and IBM), the GlobalFoundries chip plant in Saratoga County, the battery plant and wind energy operations in Schenectady, and medical imaging facilities in Rensselaer County.
These are big, established businesses that will bring a significant number of jobs. But we’ve seen what can happen when an area is dependent on one or two big businesses. It’s much better to hedge your bets with many small businesses, and in fact most of the new jobs in this country are created by small businesses (some of which become bigger businesses, and a few, like Google and Apple, blockbusters). While there’s no guarantee that someone who starts a successful business will stay in the area once he’s outgrown the incubator, there’s a good chance, especially if there are many others like him around.
Accelerate 518 will help entrepreneurs, many of whom are students or former students, find space, operational support, guidance or mentoring somewhere in the region. That will expand the reach of any one incubator. The program will also offer something else that is critical and often hard to get for start-up businesses — money — through a couple of venture capital funds.
Accelerate 518 seems a natural for the strategic plan now being formulated by the Capital Region Economic Development Council, which will be vying with nine other such councils for $1 billion in state funds. The councils, part of Gov. Cuomo’s plan to remodel economic development in the state, are supposed to be based on regional collaboration to create sustainable jobs, and that is Accelerate 518’s goal and method. But whether it gets state funding or not, it’s an excellent idea.