UTICA — There once was a place where the main industries had long gone, where young people left because they saw little hope even though they loved their scenic hometown. Those who stayed, though, banded together, learned skills that were in demand now, learned how to start and run their own businesses, and relied on one another rather than big companies from far away.
The place was Coeur d’Alene in the far north of Idaho, but it could also be the Mohawk Valley someday, insisted Chris Cochran, global director of communities for the Innovation Collective, a network of small and medium U.S. cities that is branching into Oneida County this fall with a series of events and mentorship programs designed to promote bootstrap entrepreneurship.
To help the launch, Oneida County and Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), which set up the thINCubator co-working space in downtown Utica and which will host the initiative, are contributing about $150,000, officials announced Monday.
“Those kinds of stories happen all the time and the reason they happen all the time is because there are very few places left in America that grab the average person by the shirt collar and say ‘dream,’” Cochran said.
Innovation Collective plans a series of public events such as story-telling nights, idea-sharing sessions, weekend-long mentoring summits and a technology festival that highlights the work that people within the community are focused on. The organization plans to convene think tanks, offer mentoring sessions with representatives of Fortune 500 companies and create co-working spaces.
To financially support it, the Innovation Collective devised a $350,000 yearly action plan that will be funded through the Mohawk Valley Community College Foundation with support from Oneida County and a consortium of private sector individuals and organizations. More than half of the needed funds have already been committed, said Martin Babinec, founder and chairman of the non-profit organization Upstate Venture Connect.
MVCC and Oneida County’s expected contribution is about $150,000, with the county’s part coming from an economic development fund and in the proposed 2020 county budget, County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. said.
“One thing we want to do is really invest in what’s here: the people that are here, the ability that is here, the minds that are here, the research that is here, and create from within,” Picente said.
Much of the work will be based at the thINCubator, an 8,500-square-foot co-working space in a former industrial building near Utica’s Union Station. Since it was begun five years ago, it’s held some 350 events about starting new businesses and provided 1,000 mentoring hours, said MVCC Vice President of Community Development Frank DuRoss. The two top winners in last year’s Commercialization Academy run by the Rome-based Griffiss Institute came out of the thINCcubator, DuRoss noted.
The idea is to offer more services and networks for enhancing not only technology and business-building skills but entreprenuerial thinking.
The first planned event is fireside chat on Sept. 25 at the thINCubator, where success stories can be shared, followed by a mid-winter weekend summit of corporate mentors, then a spring event focused on finding possible projects on which the area can be known as a source for solutions, Cochran said.
In Coeur d’Alene, residents sought corporate involvement, and Apple now provides mentors for Code for Everyone, where 600 people are learning to write computer code for free, Cochran noted. A company that has some 37 patents in three-dimensional printing grew out of one man’s idea developed in a garage, he said. The Innovation Collective began there but is expanding to other cities, including Yakima, Washington; Reno, Nevada and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now the Utica-Rome area. His wife, Heidi, also the organization’s events director, hails from Herkimer, and suggested the area.
But the Mohawk Valley already has examples to inspire and emulate. Assured Information Security began with three people and now employs more than 300 in several locations, including its Rome headquarters, it was noted. Cochran offered the story of Bob Donnelly, a region native who built the successful Body Alive line of body-building attire, as inspiration.
“It’s the kind of story that a student from Mohawk Valley Community College can hear and go, ‘You know what, I don’t know if I’ll ever be Elon Musk. I know I’ll never be Steve Jobs. But man, I can be Bob Donnelly. I can be someone who actually creates something like him, ‘cause he’s from here and he’s like me.’ We’re going to be telling those sessions on a monthly basis.”
Cochran said the Mohawk Valley’s strengths include leaders willing to commit resources, capital from people looking for the next wave of technology, and people who know how to work and have experience with disruptive technology.
“One of the things that differentiates this community from a lot of the communities we work in is this community has already been through the industrial revolution. It’s tangible to them. They’ve seen the closing down of factories, they’ve seen how technology can disrupt entire industries. It’s a part of the fabric of who they are. It puts them in a really unique position to be able to grab ahold of new technologies and do the same to other industries,” Cochran said.
“We really feel like between the work ethic here and the history here and the passion that exists here, this community’s really poised to do some amazing things.”