Spring 2012

Serial entrepreneurs

Universities need investors to take inventions to market

Feature Image
Michael Morgenstern illustration

Go to any of America’s hard-luck towns and you will find people who can tell you the year, if not the day, that their piece of the American dream crumbled. Millions of them have spent years fruitlessly searching for jobs.

Yet America boasts two assets that could put the unemployed back to work. One is its universities — Binghamton among them — whose scientists are turning out the research breakthroughs needed for tomorrow’s inventions. The other is its rich tradition of entrepreneurs who can turn that research into job-generating industries. Each complements the other in the process that turns an idea into a business.

“There’s a lot of talk about the University being the engine that will drive the economy,” says Eugene Krentsel, Binghamton University’s assistant vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation partnerships. “But this engine will not run itself without other components. We have to pair what we are doing with something that gets us to the next step. For innovation to occur, we need partners, private enterprises or entrepreneurs that take what we do and run with it.”

The two groups may need each other, but the trick is to bring them together. The process can be hit or miss — a West Coast entrepreneur with financial backing might never hear of an invention coming out of East Coast Binghamton.

So Binghamton is spreading the word. It is publicizing its work in its magazine Binghamton Research, talking about it on Facebook and other social media, and linking its research scientists with entrepreneurs at specialized trade fairs.

And to ease the transfer of technology from lab to marketplace, Binghamton also has “start-up suites” in its Innovative Technologies Complex for faculty and students to start new enterprises. “As they grow, they would have to ‘graduate,’” Krentsel says. “But there’s a lot of empty space in town.”

The Binghamton area is a microcosm of the changes that have transpired across the United States. Greater Binghamton was the birthplace of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, once one of the nation’s biggest shoe manufacturers, and IBM. But shoe manufacturing evaporated locally, and IBM employment shrank from more than 15,000 in the 1980s to under 1,000 now. Overall, the area has lost more than 9,500 jobs in the past 11 years, federal job data show.

“People have forgotten how those big employers got started,” Krentsel says. “The culture of [entrepreneurial] risk-taking needs to be reinvigorated here — and we are a part of this effort.”

Binghamton wants to reignite the local entrepreneurial spirit. In the meantime, it is courting entrepreneurs based elsewhere. Last June, three Binghamton researchers took their discoveries to TechStorm, an entrepreneurial matchmaking event in Virginia. The event functioned in part like a job fair and in part like speed dating — researchers and entrepreneurs met a lot of potential partners in a short time.

There have been no deals consummated yet, but that’s to be expected. Scott Hancock, Binghamton’s director of intellectual property management and licensing, says anyone who might be interested in Binghamton’s technology will do further research on the subject and won’t signal any interest until reaching a certain “comfort level” with the idea. In the meantime, the University believes such events have potential. On April 18, Binghamton will host TechStorm New York, which will highlight research by New York universities for visiting entrepreneurs.

Binghamton is particularly interested in serial entrepreneurs, people who create one business after another. “Serial entrepreneurs have the ability to execute ideas,” says John D’Aquila ’86, who has been involved in the creation of more than a dozen companies. “Ideas are plentiful, but the ability to execute is rare. Execution means turning these ideas into working businesses. That’s what creates jobs. Entrepreneurs can start with one employee and end up with hundreds or thousands.”

Serial entrepreneurs also possess the fortitude to put up with payless paydays and other deprivations, he says. “It’s a rare person who is emotionally and financially secure enough to take huge risks. They sometimes lose it all — home, business, family. But the rewards are quite good if it’s done right.”

He cites the late Steven Jobs as a prime example of the breed. He transformed the computer, movie and music businesses. He also got very rich.

As the economy has soured, other universities across the country also are trying to turn their research into jobs. State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher recently pledged to involve all 64 SUNY institutions in a joint effort to create jobs in New York, where unemployment stood at 8 percent at the end of 2011.

Zimpher wants to tap the collective power of SUNY, the largest university system in the country, to spur economic development, create jobs and train workers, she said in her recent State of the University address. Later this year she will announce new programs to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and joint research efforts among state institutions.

“Gov. Cuomo’s biggest challenge is creating jobs that move the dial for New York’s economy,” she says. “And he has chosen to do so in partnership with SUNY. Our 467,000 students, 88,000 employees, 20,000 committed retirees and 3 million alumni stand ready.”

Fortunately, New York starts with some built-in advantages. “Business services are great, and it’s the entry point to the U.S. for entrepreneurs from all over the world,” D’Aquila says.

“Entrepreneurs have the type of blood in their veins that gets things done quickly,” says Krentsel, who started several businesses prior to coming to Binghamton. “They believe in themselves and are not easily deterred by naysayers. They are not afraid of failure.”