In an important piece of research recently released, two smart analysts have put numbers to what many of us active in economic development in New York State have long been saying: there exists a deep, fundamental mismatch between the stylistic preferences of regionally based venture-capital firms and the kinds of innovation emerging from the state’s university R&D community.

The study by Judy Albers and Tom Moebus – both well known and respected players in the statewide innovation ecosystem1 – employs data from NVCA and other sources to nail the case that while the amount of venture capital under management in New York City is rising, it is specializing heavily in digital technologies (IT, software, media) and focusing on capital-efficient “quick hits,” often at the expansion phase, with high potential for fast liquidity and outsized returns. Almost none of that potential is available upstate, and consequently almost no regionally managed capital goes there.

The authors show that while the VC industry in California and Massachusetts is more eclectic in its tastes, only a very small share of that money comes to New York to begin with, and exceptionally little makes its way upstate. That leaves ventures in what Albers and Moebus call the hard sciences (subdivided into the engineering technologies and life sciences) a long, hard slog with few early-stage investors (and almost no seed investors) either based here or deploying money anywhere in the state.

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  1. Judy, now an entrepreneurship professor at SUNY Geneseo co-founded the Pre Seed Workshop program, and Tom runs several innovation programs for the SUNY Research Foundation []

On more than one occasion I’ve been approached by economic developers or policy advisors working on behalf small or mid-sized cities. These people want to know how their town can grow so-called new-economy jobs to replace those in traditional sectors that have declined.

Many such cities, particularly the smallest ones, lack a driving knowledge-based institution like a research university, and these are the toughest cases. They may host a primarily instructional undergraduate campus of a big public university, a private liberal-arts college or a community college. While these places do have students, sometimes in ample number, they offer neither a reservoir of promising intellectual property derived from federal R&D  nor concentrations of graduates (and especially postgraduates and professional students) superbly trained in the so-called STEM disciplines or well suited to startup management. As a consequence, these cities have little to offer the investors and business executives who control the allocation of startup and expansion capital in our system. And without financial investment and the jobs it creates, even the best-educated do not remain long: they simply have no choice but to leave upon graduation, deepening a cycle of trouble.

These small and mid-sized places are not the coastal metropolises and cannot easily pursue Richard Florida’s vision1 of dynamism based on coolness, tolerance, diversity, and density (though that hasn’t stopped Florida from pitching to small and mid-sized cities). Nor are they the small-city oases with high quality of recreational life that Joel Kotkin has highlighted (along with their suburbs and exurbs of course) for their appeal to rootless software engineers and other professionals2. No, they are flyover territory in the old, industrial heartland, burdened with all the cares of aging infrastructure and population, but without much taxing capacity left, and without enough private wealth creation to drive a virtuous cycle of renewal or even dynamic philanthropy.

Really, these places are at the mercy of forces well beyond the control of the usual civic and business establishments, and they are desperate for answers. With encouragement from the Obama Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative3, many such cities have come to understand they need this kind of guidance. But it’s always seemed that we were flying by the seats of our pants. Data are scarce, good theory scarcer. Experience rules.

When I saw the notice for Revitalizing American Cities — which doesn’t have the words “small cities” in its title but is nonetheless focused on them — I was curious to know what the latest scholarship says. Comprising papers by academics and practitioners, this useful review of current research and thinking is published by University of Pennsylvania Press (ISBN 978-0-8122-4555-4). It is co-edited by Susan Wachter at the Wharton School and Kimberly Zeuli at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit institute created by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter.
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  1. See for example http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books/books_home []
  2. See for example http://www.joelkotkin.com/content/00832-surprising-cities-creating-most-tech-jobs []
  3. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/07/11/announcing-strong-cities-strong-communities []

The National Research Council has made available a pre-print of the forthcoming report of its Committee on The Mathematical Sciences in 2025, chaired by Caltech EE/applied physics professor Thomas Everhart. Like all NRC publications, it’s a long and dense document, but the summary remains fully accessible to the general reader. Though it makes all the usual pleas for funding of basic research without undue hope for immediate practical application, the report also starkly underlines what should now be obvious connections between mathematical knowledge and rapidly accumulating advances in a wide array of other disciplines and real-world applications. Even within mathematics itself, the report argues, boundaries between sub-disciplines are breaking down, and mathematicians who would formerly have seemed past their prime years of creativity can now still make important discoveries because it pays increasingly to have long experience of these interconnections.

What I found remarkable was how hard this committee came down on the core discipline itself, calling mathematicians generally “incognizant” (fighting word!) of the expanding role that the mathematical sciences now play in other realms of theory and practice. “It is easy,” the authors write, “to point to work in theoretical physics or theoretical computer science that is indistinguishable from research done by mathematicians, and similar overlap occurs with theoretical ecology, mathematical biology, bioinformatics, and an increasing number of fields.” By implication, the authors are calling their colleagues insufficiently appreciative of these connections. And in practical fields, it seems that everyone — biotechnologists, communication-system engineers, and financial-market “quants,” to take just a few examples — has proved more aware of these interdependencies than mathematicians themselves.
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