Monday, July 8, 2013

NYC as a Potential #1 Global Tech Leader

L to R: John Tepper Marlin, Helen Keller, Henry Etzkowitz.
Last month I met with my friend Henry Etzkowitz for breakfast. There he is with the hat in the photo at left. I am taking the picture (a "selfie") with my right hand. Behind us is a portrait of Helen Keller that reminds me of the thought, “None so blind as cannot see,” an idea dating back before Oedipus to Jeremiah 5:21.

On the appropriate policies for encouraging technology, Etzkowitz is my guru. He travels around the country and the world picking up honors for his documentation of policy successes, and I update him on recent developments in NY State and NY City, the most interesting of which is the Cornell-Technion Center on Roosevelt Island.

Over the last two decades we have often shaken our heads together at the failures of NYC policy-making to encourage technology as an engine of local economic development.

Tech Policy, NYC, 1995-1999 

Our shared interest in tech policy goes back to the 1990s when I was serving as chief economist for the second of the three NY City Comptrollers, between 1992 and 2006. The chief economist function was created by new responsibilities conferred by the 1990 NYC Charter Revision on the Office of the NY City Comptroller.

(The Comptroller, an elected official, is currently John Liu. Eliot Spitzer has just thrown his hat in the ring to succeed Liu. Outgoing Borough President Scott Stringer has for months been considered the most likely to be elected.)

The City Comptroller's office has been included in economic-development planning - for example, in a 1995 conference organized by the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Bill McDonough. The NY Fed called together leading institutions in the region to explore New York’s potential for transition to a knowledge economy, imitating the initiative taken before and after World War II by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and leading to the expansion of tech startups along Route 128. The Lower Manhattan Association provided administrative support for the NY Fed’s conference, and a young science-policy graduate, Michael Salvato, worked on the program. Etzkowitz was a key participant, as the then-director of SUNY’s Science Policy Institute.

Magnificent it was, but not sustained. Few participating institutions signed up for the follow-up phase. Contrast this with the New England Council, a decades-long effort from the 1920s that sought to follow the model that led to Silicon Valley, by systematizing the high-tech spinning-off fostered at Harvard and MIT.

The New England Council sustained its effort first in scientific instruments at the turn of the 20th century, then in radio in the 1920s. Their work helped create Small Business Investment Companies and the entire venture capital industry after World War II. When I was at the Small Business Administration in the 1960s, I was able to study at close quarters the successes of the SBIC program. The American Research and Development Corporation was founded in 1946 as a pro bono regional development effort. A decade later it founded the Digital Equipment Projects, which was intended to create better aircraft training simulators but engineered the mini-computer along the way.

Why Did the NYC Regional Effort Fail? 

So why was the effort not sustained in New York City, in contrast to the Bay Area and Route 128?

  • Silicon Alley was considered to be doing okay by itself and the involvement of government and universities wasn't seen as necessary. 
  • NYC software firms that were competing with the Bay Area and Route 128 by supporting Wall Street's highly proprietary electronification projects did not see any value in regional cooperation. 
  • Their growth was resisted by traditional parts of the advertising industry, which felt that it was being cannibalized. (The AOL merger with Time Warner did not seem to be good for the traditional information and communication businesses.)
  • Some knowledgable tech people felt that NYC was too far behind Stanford and MIT both on the entrepreneurial front and in the sophistication of its programming to begin to compete. 
  • Others decided that nothing more was needed than a professional association - first the NY New Media Association, then the NY Software Industry Association (which evolved into an incubator that depended too much on its real estate viability) and the putatively broader-based Tech Council.)
The NYC Software/IT Industry Report, 1999 

In this environment, the NYC Comptroller’s Office published a report, under my direction, on the “NYC Software/IT Industry” in April 1999 (summary and links to pdf files here). The NY Times covered it well, including with its summary of the report a photo of the Comptroller. The Chancellor of CUNY, Professor Harry Markowitz, told the Comptroller he loved the report. The Comptroller was pleased and generously said so. Etzkowitz played a key role in helping us define the history of tech policy and an appropriate path forward for NYC, as reflected in the last few chapters of the report.

The Report showed that New York had most of the elements required for a world-class technology center:
  • A public-school system that provides a steady supply of well-trained high school graduates who are ready to grapple with technology issues at the university level.
  • Close cooperation among regional universities, private and state-run (and definitely including community colleges), to ensure strong support for entrepreneurs seeking high-quality technical staff.
  • Centers of technology excellence among the universities, especially schools of engineering, and supportive faculty at business and law schools.
  • Training for technology experts in tech transfer and entrepreneurship.
  • University-based incubator labs and university support for policies that reward labs and centers and individuals within them for innovation. 
  • Business interest in, and support for, bringing university-based ideas to market in a collaborative environment.
  • Government support for technology to encourage university-business cooperation.
The big missing tooth in this dazzling smile was the entrepreneurial skills created by the open communication between universities and business in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass.  NYU and Columbia around that time announced they were going to work more closely together on research and technology initiatives.

The Dot-Com Bust and Mayor Bloomberg’s First Two Terms 

However, in fact technology took a back seat after the sharp drop in dot-com share values in spring and fall 2000. The NY Academy of Sciences won a million-dollar grant from the STARR foundation, but the large universities were not impressed and most of the funds went to support publications drawing attention to the tech assets of the region. A seminar series drew second-tier administrators and junior faculty, with the notable exception of the President of New York Poly in Brooklyn.

One practical result was the creation of a network of area university technology officers who spun off their own support network. After 9/11, and the election of a mayor who had made his fortune by selling technology services in the form of Bloomberg machines, Etzkowitz and I expected the new mayor to lead a major tech initiative that would make the City of New York into a tech center that might eclipse both Silicon Valley and Route 128.

We were disappointed. The new mayor made clear he was a businessman first and techie second, and he did not undertake any major tech initiatives in his first two terms. He made up for that in his third term with the competition that led to the Cornell-Technion project, but if he had stuck to the term limits in City Charter he would not have left much of a tech legacy.

For the ten years after the Comptroller's Software Report, Etzkowitz and did what we could to keep the recommendations of the software report in front of people who might implement them. Etzkowitz organized the NY Inter-University Seminar on Innovation, bringing researchers and practitioners together from across the region. We had monthly meetings with guest speakers who discussed the recommendations for inter-university cooperation for technology development. We deliberately did not meet at universities, but mostly in the Comptroller’s Office and sometimes the conference rooms of law and business offices.

In 2001 I wrote to the Mayor about creating a technology-transfer office comparable to the Mayor’s film and broadcasting office. In 2002 I met with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff on the subject.  Etzkowitz also tried to get some interest from the new Mayor.

While the NYC Economic Development Corporation did some good things to assist firms involved in the knowledge economy, their focus was largely on matching up available real estate with business needs. They took action when real estate opportunities meshed with tech promotion.

The Cornell-Technion Initiative and NYC’s Potential 

In 2012, as the Cornell-Technion Roosevelt Island initiative took shape, Etzkowitz and I felt that our thesis of the missing link in NYC’s innovation ecosystem — a Stanford-MIT-like institution focusing on commercializing knowledge, tech transfer and incubation, as well as basic research and education - had found a place on NYC’s policy agenda.

In retrospect, it looks as though to get the interest of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff we should have translated the Software Report recommendations into a real estate-driven project. When I met with Doctoroff I should have come in with a plan not just for policy but for leveraging $100 million in vacant city land and municipal bonding to attract 20 times that in university and business investment.

A lot of cities are trying to emulate the success of the Bay Area and Route 128. The typical competitors are state capitals with a local university like Albany, N.Y. or Austin, Tex. or Raleigh, N.C. On the Cornell-Technion plan, Etzkowitz comments:
Mayor Bloomberg’s Roosevelt Island project is now focusing on master’s-level students. But research groups require a variety of skills and levels of involvement, including Ph.D. students, post-doctoral fellows, teaching faculty, research associates and undergraduates, supported by large-scale research funding, typically from the federal government, with state government and industry support at the margin.
I remember attending a meeting of MIT alumni in NYC, when Mayor Bloomberg had just published his book and was contemplating a run for Mayor to succeed Giuliani. He emphasized how competition keeps everyone on their toes. Afterwards I spoke with an MIT professor who said that NYC would never catch up to Route 128 because it didn't have the entrepreneurial spirit. Etzkowitz thinks this is still a problem: "NYC still needs an MIT-type institution, along with a system of mentoring research groups to generate spinoffs. Entrepreneurship is a group activity."

One of the hopes of Mayor Bloomberg's economic development team is that Technion - which has a strong record of generating spinoffs - will stimulate Cornell and together they will light a fire under NYU, Columbia, CUNY and SUNY. Etzkowitz sees some potential in some "home team" NYC projects:
NYU has a big data analysis center focused on urban issues, building upon its mathematical strengths and industry links. Columbia is breaking its geographical boundaries, expanding its technology projects above 120th street and linking with City College, in a joint biomedical/engineering research center, building on the strengths of these two schools. NYC also has special assets. The SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology spins out boutique fashion firms, continuing the Institute’s role of bringing together industry and labor to helped the garment industry grow into the fashion industry. Similarly, the SUNY at Purchase theater and dance schools operate on an implicit incubator model, graduating theater and dance troupes into NYC’s thriving cultural economy.
A key to the future is how state governments are responding to their revenue challenges. Etzkowitz  thinks that underfunding of schools in California since Proposition 13 and cutbacks in support of the University of California may damage the Bay Area franchise. Massachusetts, meanwhile, is going in the other direction, funding its public schools and universities.

Henry, thank you for our conversations. And for you, the reader who has read this far - there is more to this story, so stay tuned! (Follow tweets on Twitter - @cityeconomist.) (August 14, 2014: See followup post here.)


  1. Great overview, John! We agree on much, and where we disagree I will respond collegially at some point. Have you read the 1996 Leslie and Karg article referenced this week in Vivek Wadhwa's opinion piece in MIT Tech Review? Somehow I'd missed it when it came out, but it touches a lot on my experience in New Jersey, and I think has some acute observations pertinent to your and Henry's discussion.

  2. David - You have a front-row seat as Incubator-in-Chief in New York State. Thanks for your comments, which I will follow up. As you know, I've spent the better part of a year working in Newark so I would like to know more about what you found. Gov. Christie has been trying to lower taxes as an economic development initiative, but so long as the people who compute average taxes include property taxes, Northern New Jersey will rank high high.