Concluding my assignment building the BIA/NYS

Effective at the start of this month, I have turned over management of the Business Incubator Association of New York State (BIA/NYS) to Marc Alessi, an attorney and startup entrepreneur. This concludes my decade-long adventure in social entrepreneurship, building a new trade association from scratch. It’s been a rewarding if challenging task, and I’m happy to place it now in the hands of capable, energetic, new leadership.

This was conceived initially as a part-time job I could do while continuing to consult, but it always seemed to take more time and resources than planned. To become sustainable, the association now must grow revenues enough to support both the executive and admin functions. Marc is a former state assemblyman who’s also been serving as the launch CEO of a biomedical-instrumentation startup, and he’s both well suited and fully committed to the challenge.

I warmly appreciate the support I’ve had throughout my tenure from the association board of directors and the membership at large. Several have become good friends over the years, and I thank all for the many kind thoughts expressed at this transition. This change frees me to reallocate more of my time back to consulting projects, and I intend to do so. I also have begun experimenting with angel investing, and I plan to continue to expand that effort insofar as I prudently can.

The association grew from one of my consulting projects: an effort in the early 2000s funded by NYSTAR and the Sloan Foundation to convene a roundtable of those staff at New York City’s research universities with economic development in their job title or responsibilities. Even before Mayor Bloomberg ramped up his own entrepreneurship initiatives, we were connecting practitioners of science & technology-based economic development with the staff at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and encouraging roundtable members to emulate national best practices.

Early on, the principals of this roundtable project (Ira Rubenstein, Jeff Brancato, and Ted Brown) and I recognized an opportunity that (like many opportunities) stemmed from a problem. Among those attending our roundtable were several operators of business incubators in the City who did not all even know each other, let alone understand anything about the others’ programs. The lack of connectivity clearly extended beyond city limits: it became evident we needed a statewide association to parallel and complement the National Business Incubation Association (as the International Business Innovation Association was then called). Just about half the states had such a group that focuses on state-level issues, and although we had many fine business incubators, we did not.

With the help of the same sponsors, in 2004-2005 I went on a tour across New York State, interviewing the operators of at least two incubator programs in each of the state’s 10 economic regions, with an eye to identifying best practices and possible members for a new association. I also interviewed the leaders of several other, already-existing state-level associations. I wrote a report back to our sponsors, but the report was never the true deliverable: the association was. In the fall of 2005, the national SBIR meeting happened to take place in Albany. We took a side room at the hotel and gathered together those I had spoken with in my travels, as well as supporters from the state government, and decided to go ahead. My colleagues Ira, Alex Brownstein (then of SUNY UAlbany), and Woody Maggard (SUNY UB) signed the incorporation papers, and I agreed to serve as founding executive director, never thinking it would take more than 10 years to replace myself with someone more naturally suited to the role of trade-association director!

We began with 14 dues-paying member incubators statewide, and by the time I left last month we had nearly 40 dues-paying entities of all description, which among them operate about 70 physical incubators, virtual or without-walls incubators, research and technology parks, proof-of-concept centers, accelerators, coworking operations, and branded, special-purpose programs like clean-energy incubators or student incubators. Most of our members were college- or university-affiliated (with a nice mix across SUNY, private, and CUNY institutions), and the balance were mainly regional economic-development organizations, with a few private-sector operators in the mix. We always sought maximum inclusivity, involving as many staff members at the member institution as were assigned to the business-incubation mission, no matter how their activity was branded or funded.

While I never lobbied in Albany (not my geography, style, or personality, and I never registered to do so), the executive and legislative branches at least knew where to find us and often sought out the advice of the incubator community, using the association as an intermediary. We never ran venture pitch events or other activities focused on entrepreneurs or investors directly. Instead, we stayed focused on serving the needs of the professionals who run incubators and incubator-like programs, providing a platform for sharing of knowledge, professional development, and at least a limited amount of advocacy. Allies followed.

A decade ago, it was all too easy for a regional organization to request capital support from its Legislative delegation to build or buy an incubator building; but it was way too difficult to raise the operating funds to actually run an effective program of business mentoring and development. The benefits of being formally organized became clear as public agencies like Empire State Development and NYSERDA began to offer programs of operating support to business incubators managed according to accepted best-practices, and turned to us for advice and connectivity. Staff at these agencies, as well as investors who depend for deal flow on a farm-team system that shares the costs of due diligence and helps reduce the technical and market risk inherent in startups, became another constituency. Many of these people supported us and joined us each year for the association annual meeting, which rotated around the state to showcase incubation strategies and assets in a range of large and mid-sized metropolitan regions. I have really enjoyed the excuse to travel around this amazing state and get to know its regions better.

Over the past decade, the sophistication of our membership increased at a rapid pace, as incubator sponsors recognized that their obligation was to provide much more than cheap space and shared facilities: that they needed to become the focal point for innovation & entrepreneurship in their own communities, the leading edge of an effort to rebrand and rebuild their communities for the new economy. In the future, I hope to blog more about my (somewhat heretical) views of what constitutes a good incubator program and why communities should support them. For now, I just wanted to offer this brief recap and thank all of those who helped and supported me through this adventure.

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