No one is likely to mistake my hometown area of Upstate’s beautiful Mohawk Valley with the dynamism of Silicon Valley. But those who know me are also aware of my deep commitment to help foster an Upstate wide startup ecosystem – so seeing some meaningful progress close to home is especially motivating for me.
Before I explain this new source of optimism, let me give some Upstate NY geography context. I reside in the Utica/Rome SMSA of about 300,000 persons. An area once heavily industrialized, but now struggling with the gut wrenching changes arising from the region’s inability to adapt from loss of high paying manufacturing jobs and closure of what was once a huge Air Force base in Rome.
Air Force Research Laboratory
Last year I attended a briefing at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to hear about plans to commercialize defense research by engaging Upstate college students to help drive the initial commercialization phase.
My expectations coming in were pretty low. After all, the whole model seemed to be grounded as a government led play – something that runs counter to my principles of how to build a startup community. In fact, were not for the urging of my Upstate Venture Connect Board Member John Zogby, I would not have gone to that briefing at all.
My first surprise was that the head of AFRL, Georg Duchak – a former Air Force general, presented a compelling vision that touched on key elements from Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities. A book he not only read, but incorporated themes from as he envisioned how this initiative would unfold.
Ok. That was impressive and it got my attention. But I could still foresee the many roadblocks yet to overcome, not the least of which was to find an entrepreneur capable of leading this charge amidst an alphabet soup of government bureaucracy and to stitch together an outreach to get some of the best and brightest students from around our Upstate region to come and participate.
It’s about the entrepreneur, stupid
The brilliance of George’s choice in successfully recruiting and relocating Mike McCoy as the entrepreneur to lead the effort was so clearly shown this past weekend when the Commercialization Academy’s first graduating cohort of 9 student teams pitched to an auditorium of excited investors, business professionals and startup community supporters.
Since I helped start and run the StartFast Venture Accelerator, I’m a guy who can appreciate all that was involved to recruit and season talented startup teams for this inaugural Commercialization Academy program.
This was a very professional output that I would rank up there with what we typically see in mature accelerator programs of the big startup hubs like NYC and Boston. All the more amazing when you consider it was comprised of student teams that came from 13 different colleges.
While not all of the student teams finished with a viable product opportunity, there was little doubt that this program just created a whole new crop of highly charged entrepreneurs and startup candidates who will soon populate Upstate’s startup scene.
Live interactions spur other outcomes
There was also a true “wow” effect from the perspective of the nearly 200 Mohawk Valley residents fortunate enough to be in the audience to take part in the Commercialization Academy demo day.
You won’t hear any of those attendees grousing about lack of potential for growth opportunity here Upstate. They saw our future in front of them and suddenly realized we have the assets to start creating real companies that someday generate a lot more jobs than the big box efforts we still hear about from our political leaders.
Another near term outcome from this event is that it has likely been the tipping point for us now to start building a Mohawk Valley seed capital fund so that our successful local entrepreneurs and professionals can join forces by pooling funds that will help get some of these startups into motion.
As UVC has done this already in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, we have the pattern recognition to know what it will take. It’s exciting to see the Mohawk Valley now arrive to this level of startup ecosystem development.
Community effort begins with individuals willing to step up
Kudos to George Duchak and Mike McCoy for their prescient vision and more importantly, disciplined execution staying true to key Startup Communities principles like being led by entrepreneurs and crossing boundaries to engage others way outside the scope of their own organization.
I am totally jazzed about the fabulous success of this first true hometown effort and am looking forward to doing all I can to help propel the program forward as they become a leader nationwide in defense research commercialization.