Welcome to the 2018 Innovator of the Year awards
The stories that follow are dedicated to Long Island’s best and brightest ideas, which are coming to life across a broad spectrum of inventiveness – spurred by societal needs, classic red-blooded capitalism and some truly amazing examples of good, old creativity.
From “smart” receptacles that notify laboratory researchers when third-party samples are ready to be collected to delicious chocolate treats with high moral fiber to clean-energy innovations that will one day – and maybe one day soon – change how we power our vehicles and homes, the new technologies and techniques explored here do more than perform tasks quicker and better: They infuse their next-generation leaps with old-world goodness.
We have software awardees intent on changing how we teach our children and how we care for our elderly and how doctors schedule appointments – potentially, a billion-dollar breakthrough in the burgeoning “patient experience” realm.
We have “urban farmers” focused on bringing the freshest organic products to our cities, and Fortune 500-level executives focusing their experience and skill on the earliest-stage entrepreneurs, and fourth-generation restaurateurs boldly going where their predecessors haven’t gone before.
And each of our shining Innovators of the Year, every inveterate tinkerer and red-eyed programmer and tireless mentor and first-time entrepreneur, adds a measure of heart to the cause. Sure, wealth is great – but wealth generated while helping humanity is even better, and while each of these ideas might not change the world, each makes the world a better place.
Our founder and publisher, John Kominicki, firmly believed Long Island’s economic vitality depends on its brilliant researchers and risk-taking entrepreneurs. He thought those people should get a round of applause every now and then, too, and so we’re thrilled to carry on the Innovators of the Year legacy.
Of course, like Innovate Long Island itself, these awards would not be possible without the encouragement and generous support of our sponsors. Their company logos and congratulatory messages grace these pages, but we’d also like to offer our sincerest appreciation to the universities, law firms, accounting firms, economic-development offices, nonprofit foundations and individuals who believe – as John did, as we do – that innovation will prove the bedrock of Long Island’s restored prosperity.
Thank you also to the small army of professionals who helped us pull this off, including steadfast photographer Bob Giglione, videographer and digital master John Richardson (and his entire Quick-Cast team), the topflight experts at Design Audio Visual and, of course, our longtime friends at the Crest Hollow Country Club.
Congratulations to the 2018 Innovators of the Year. As has been said many times before, ideas are easy – courage, determination and execution, that’s the hard part.
We applaud you.
– Marlene McDonnell, Gregory Zeller
Innovators of the Year: Devon and Melora Loffreto, Bo Feng
Location: Deer Park
The skinny: Project-based coding and computer-science K-12 education, with an eye on the spectrum
Launched in 2006 by husband-and-wife inventors Devon and Melora Loffreto, kidOYO (pronounced “oh-yo”) marries education, technology and entrepreneurship in a classroom coding effort that builds on the couple’s earlier startup efforts, which include Noizivy.org – a 501(c)3 supporting computer science, engineering and entrepreneurship education – and CodeLI.org, a nonprofit coding community involving St. Joseph’s College and Adelphi University. Encouraging a student to “own your own,” and appealing organically to students with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders, kidOYO emphasizes project-based learning in computer science, engineering and entrepreneurship education. The company also works with universities to build collaborative off-campus relationships – families, corporate employers, K-12 school administrators, community groups – all orbiting a proprietary, web-based learning platform called OYOclass.com.
The innovative computer-programming platform is helping some of Long Island’s youngest students leapfrog into the future. The Loffrettos worked with SBU-educated software engineer Bo Feng to launch OYOClass.com in 2014 and have already brought the program to classrooms in Mineola, Garden City, Amityville and Huntington, and to many more young programmers in regional coding camps.
The couple – whose first collaboration was EduShape, a Deer Park-based by-contract toymaker with an educational bent – trace kidOYO back to their then-3-year-old son, who announced his intention to create software. The boy had “sensory issues,” Devon told Innovate LI, but took immediately to things like robotics and computer science, a theme that would reoccur naturally throughout the kidOYO process.
“The first time I ran a summer camp, I think 40 percent of the room was on the spectrum, including the mentors,” Devon said. “Suddenly, they’re in a community where they find friends and their aides are no longer needed. Bringing these kids together and having them learn to be comfortable in a room full of their peers has been a real bonus.”
Innovators of the Year: Louis DeVito, Jacob Hochendoner, Adam Hussain
Location: Garden City
The skinny: Workflow-increasing, productivity-boosting software solutions
From the Evolution of a Startup file comes LegalSoft USA, which in one short year has redesigned an award-winning niche business model to offer more universal appeal. Promising cloud-based software for elder-law attorneys that would simplify and streamline not only what services they offered but how they deliver them to their clients, LegalSoft Inc. was one of four Hofstra University teams that competed in the 2017 New York State Business Plan Competition.
Hofstra University students Jacob Hochendoner, Louis DeVito and Adam Hussain – comprising one of just seven Long Island teams chosen for the final round of the prestigious (and lucrative) state pitch-a-thon – ultimately placed third in the Albany competition. The startup also took second place, and the $12,500 runner-up prize, in the 2017 Hofstra-Digital Remedy Venture Challenge.
But just one year later, LegalSoft USA – riding all those strong niche-market vibes – is staring through a wider lens. Today, the company is focused on delivering quality software solutions to help all kinds of users increase workflow and boost productivity. Still specializing in law and accounting firms, it has evolved to offer numerous IT solutions for small to mid-sized businesses, including custom website design.
Among its most popular offerings: Gift and Note, an easy-to-use cloud-based SAAS for attorneys designed to simplify and streamline the complex, time-consuming process of calculating Promissory Notes and Gifts – a common and cumbersome step for attorneys dealing with Medicaid qualifications.
Patient Innovations LLC
Innovator of the Year: Ken Greenberg
The skinny: Web-based software for optimizing healthcare-provider operations and improving the patient experience
Pardon Ken Greenberg’s optimism, but he’s quite serious when he references a potential billion-dollar-plus plateau for his 2013 startup Patient Innovations – and he might not be far off. Producing cloud-based software solutions to recapture “lost time” in both private-practice and hospital settings, Patient Innovations has one eye on the patient experience and the other on the provider’s bottom line – a win-win setup that may ultimately rewrite the book on healthcare.
It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure, but this isn’t exactly the first time around the block for Greenberg, who in 1992 co-founded Hauppauge-based traditional/digital marketing firm Austin & Williams and spent decades guiding it into one of the region’s most-awarded agencies.
And not only is Greenberg fairly familiar with success, but in Patient Innovations, he’s partnered with a true medical star: Akram Boutros, a Long Island hospital veteran and current CEO of Cleveland-based MetroHealth System, Northeast Ohio’s largest healthcare provider.
Just five years in, the collaboration – which was backed early on by a $600,000 investment from United Healthcare – has already flipped the switch on its flagship OnTime Care software suite, which contains programs designed to synchronize provider and patient schedules (virtually eliminating waiting-room waits), track hospital staff and equipment and otherwise create efficiencies and eliminate the time-sucks that have traditionally hampered healthcare operations.
Meanwhile, the partners are already knee-deep into their next software project (OnTime Discharge, a million-dollar idea for hospitals that promises to complete discharge protocols in just 15 minutes) as well as a potentially game-changing database that will collate the company’s many data points to help providers better understand the dynamic relationships between patients, providers, equipment and time – “Big Data that we will be presenting intuitively,” Greenberg promises.
With nine U.S. patents pending and OnTime Care spreading its wings, the innovator is actively meeting with investors to raise “a few million,” enough capital to develop that OnTime Discharge suite and “scale this thing.”
“I met an investment banker who said this was a $3 billion business,” Greenberg noted. “If I can eliminate the wait in doctors’ offices and lower the cost of healthcare, that would be an amazing legacy – but I certainly wouldn’t mind getting rich, if everybody’s right about this.”
Applied DNA Sciences
Innovator of the Year: James Hayward
Location: Stony Brook
The skinny: Supply-chain authentication through molecular tagging, plus heaping side order of proprietary DNA sequencing for laboratory research
It’s fair to say Applied DNA’s impressive advisory board is earning its keep. Including former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, pharma industry legend Gunther Faber, PepsiCo Vice Chairman Mehmood Khan and former KeySpan and National Grid Chairman Bob Catell, the board spearheaded a 2017 that included forays into several new vertical markets and numerous new geographies. SigNature T molecular tags and other company protocols now track supplies and products for manufacturers and retailers around the globe, including cotton and leather supply chains, plastics, fertilizers, electronics components, laser-printer ink cartridges, European automobiles – even legalized cannabis supplies and Irish bank notes.
Meanwhile, Applied DNA has strengthened old ties with its U.S. government clients and developed a completely new vertical, leveraging its capacity for large-scale DNA production to become a supplier for in-vitro diagnostic and other DNA-focused researchers – all while adding multiple new patents to its impressive collection, these involving the core technology powering SigNature T.
Steering the ship is Innovator of the Year James Hayward, the Applied DNA President and CEO who told Innovate LI early in 2017 that the recruitment of the superstar Strategic Advisory Board was “an indication of the trust our platform is engendering in the greater global market.”
“We have significantly matured from a toolbox company to a platform company,” Hayward said, “capable of servicing big commercial ecosystems like textiles or fertilizers.”
Innovators of the Year: Jon and Richard Klein
The skinny: Innovative skin-care company with clever anti-acne formulas and even more clever e-commerce alliances
When Kantian Skincare, the public face of Huntington-based Kantian Sciences Corp., hurtled past the $1 million sales plateau in July 2017, company co-founder and President Jon Klein gave all the credit to the company’s flagship product, the Neutralyze Anti-Acne Solution. But the multi-patented product owes its success as much to ubiquitous e-commerce platform Amazon as it does to its impressive results. And credit for the Amazon alliance goes to Klein, who knew Amazon was “a fantastic place for a brand to launch.” He was right: Neutralyze revenues hit the seven-digit plateau just 24 months after the product hit Amazon Prime’s virtual shelves in July 2015, with Klein counting more than 30,000 units sold through the popular platform.
The Huntington firm, which Klein co-founded in 2012 with his father, Smithtown dentist Richard Klein, is now building momentum – and mining its own customer data – through a proprietary online store that attracts customers through targeted Facebook and Google advertising. But with new “nitrogen boost” products developed by consulting chemist George Deckner, a former Procter & Gamble chemical superstar, in the pipeline, Kantian Skincare is happy to continue basking in the unspoken endorsement that comes with being an Amazon Prime product.
“We’ve been able to really leverage the credibility that Amazon brings to your brand,” Klein said. “And we’ve achieved a million dollars in sales with really three products in a singular acne kit. The next logical thing for us, based on customer feedback, is to come out with these new products.”
Innovators of the Year: Chad Bouton and Mohamed Ahmed
Location: Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Manhasset
The skinny: A nerve-stimulation device for expectant moms designed to prevent premature deliveries and otherwise uncomplicate complicated pregnancies
It’s hardly a shock to find Chad Bouton and Mohamed Ahmed on any Innovator of the Year list: Each has forged a titanic reputation in his particular field (or fields) of expertise. Bouton, who in 2015 left independent R&D giant Battelle and hitched his wagon to the Feinstein Center, is recognized as a global bioelectronics pioneer, while Ahmed – a neonatal-perinatal research director at the Feinstein Institute and associate professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell – is arguably best known as the founder of pulmonary hypertension program at New Hyde Park’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
That level of innovation is built into the NeuroGuard, which is worn like a championship wrestling belt around the stomach of an expectant mother and delivers tiny electrical signals to naturally modulate neural pathways regulating uterine contractions – a mild zapping intended to delay premature delivery and allow time for proper fetal maturity.
The device – which also facilitates the administration of antenatal steroids to enhance the baby’s lung maturity and minimize postnatal complications – earned its inventors top honors (and some $500,000 in development funds) in the Improving Client Clinical Care category of the Northwell Health 2017 Innovation Challenge.
With complications from preterm births ranked as the leading cause of death among children under the age of 5, Ahmed said he and Bouton would use the prize money to build out the nerve-stimulation technology. “With Northwell Health’s financial support, we hope to address preterm birth complications by studying our bioelectronic medicine device’s ability to naturally delay premature delivery,” he said.
Innovator of the Year: Sammy Chu
The skinny: Energy-system integrations with one eye on sustainability and the other on collaboration, starring the busiest man in Long Island energy efficiency
Edgewise Energy, which develops and aggregates regional energy projects, did the C-suite shuffle in 2017, with cofounder Sammy Chu – formerly the chief innovation officer – rising to chief executive officer, and cofounder and former CEO James Emlock focusing on his duties as chairman. It’s another feather in the considerable hat worn by the impressive Chu, whose lengthy résumé includes current gigs as chairman of the Long Island chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and vice chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission.
That curriculum vitae also covers Chu’s work as founding director of the Town of Babylon’s Long Island Green Homes program – self-billed as the nation’s first “operationalized property-assessed clean-energy program” – and as chief of staff to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a role that found him on the front line of the county’s response to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
Chu and Edgewise Energy’s other new executives – including Senior Advisor Dan Kartzman, formerly a senior advisor on market development at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Senior Director of Operations Dan Whitson, a solar power expert with stints at Islandia’s Green Audit USA and Copiague’s Powersmith Home Energy Solutions – are focused on creating new collaborative efficiencies that benefit both the electric grid and commercial power customers.
One of the most impressive details about Edgewise Energy is that the company itself represents a cutting-edge pivot: Chu and Emlock’s 2015 startup, then known as Enerlogic, focused exclusively on bringing residential fuel cells to market.
But residential fuel-cell tech wasn’t developing rapidly enough, according to Chu, and the Enerlogic team “saw an opportunity” to evolve into more of a clean-tech guide – leading to its quick rise as a shining beacon of the best in energy technologies, programs and financing.
NextSwitch/Brookhaven Technology Group
Innovator of the Year: Slawa Solovyov
Location: Stony Brook
The skinny: Looking into the future with deep dives into superconductivity and fusion reactions
After pursuing superconductor research at Brookhaven National Laboratory for more than two decades, scientist Slawa Solovyov faced one of the most confounding mind puzzles of his long career: learning how to be a businessman. But becoming an entrepreneur has actually introduced Solovyov – also chief scientist at Long Island High Technology Incubator-based research-and-development company Brookhaven Technology Group – to a new way of thinking about science, a fresh perspective that weighs various commercialization factors alongside the straight-up R&D.
That multifaceted mindset heavily influences NextSwitch, which Solovyov founded in 2015 with Brookhaven Technology Group cofounder and President Paul Farrell to pursue next-generation superconductivity and clean fusion-reactor technology – a virtually unlimited, if currently cost-prohibitive, energy source, according to the scientist.
The science (particularly the fusion-reaction science) may be years from commercial viability, but the commercialization education has come fast for Solovyov, a first-time entrepreneur who’s quickly learned to mix new thought processes in with his old-school scientific method.
“In science, it’s always the best and brightest idea that’s the most valuable asset,” he noted. “But in the business world, it’s value proposition and value to customers, and sometimes the most intriguing ideas simply don’t have that customer value.”
There have been plenty of other Startup 101 lessons – the pursuit of working capital, networking at national conventions, a goldmine of potential-customer feedback, all exerting not-so-subtle influences on NextSwitch and its laboratory science.
For the scientist-turned-entrepreneur, it’s a lot to digest – but Solovyov senses an enormous upside in the next-generation energy market, enough to justify the steep learning curve.
“The largest market on the planet right now is the market of energy,” he said. “If you can get your foot into this game, you probably have a true business proposition.”
Innovator of the Year: Barbara Dutton-Weingarten
Location: Stony Brook
The skinny: An early-stage sea hunt for the best landlocked “green” tech with maritime-industry potential
Green Framework has assigned itself a fairly unique mission: to become a leading provider of marine-focused “green” technologies by identifying tools in other industries that might have sea legs and re-tasking them for maritime uses. The affiliate of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program focuses on technologies that are primarily designed to eliminate emissions and curb fuel consumption – a pollution-busting approach that offers clear financial and ecological advantages by sourcing and devising the best-possible tech.
Leveraging decades of experiences in Europe, the Far East and the Americas, the 2015 startup boasts boatloads of mechanical moxie, all locked in on reengineering, reformulating and reclassifying landlocked designs for a new life at sea. Green Framework also provides mechanisms for bringing the new maritime-ready products directly to customers via specific market agreements with multiple manufacturers.
Next-level technologies currently in the company’s pipeline include “fuel-grooming systems” that increase the environmental profile of marine-specific diesel fuels; “hydrogen-on-demand” tech; and cyclonic exhaust systems that reduce fuel use by maximizing turbocharger efficiency, among others.
In addition to CEBIP, Green Framework – which is also a member of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association and the Connecticut Maritime Association – is an affiliate of the Maritime Global Technologies Innovation Center, which is dedicated to connecting early-stage Greater New York enterprises with the global maritime-industry ecosystem.
Those kinds of connections are critical, according to founder Barbara Dutton-Weingarten, who held executive-level consulting positions with Huntington CPA Paul W. Seigel and Jericho-based Getty Realty Corp. before launching Green Framework.
Dutton-Weingarten, naturally, has made connectivity a cornerstone of her startup effort – a focus that was evident last June, when she attended Stony Brook University’s 2017 Incubator Showcase, before her startup was even accepted into the CEBIP program, just to see how connecting with SBU might speed things up.
“We think it would be a very good thing to have access to a lot of the technologies from the university, which will help us build prototypes,” Dutton-Weingarten told Innovate LI last summer. “And we think it will help us make connections and possibly get some funding.”
Innovator of the Year: Stephen Boyd
Location: Blue Point
The skinny: Converting natural gas into a economy- and environment-boosting additive for the non-natural gas that fuels our cars
Until electric (or solar powered or even water-powered?) automobiles are the mainstream standard, the world’s cars, trucks and SUVs will run on gasoline, and the ozone layer will just have to deal with it. But fortunately for the planetary atmosphere and those of us who enjoy breathing it, a Long Island researcher is cooking up a new gasoline additive – made from plentiful natural gas – that could limit the old-school combustion engine’s environmental impact.
That’s the goal at Blue Point-based Havelide Systems, a 2012 startup knee-deep in gas-to-liquids chemistry. It’s primary focus: a proprietary, two-pronged method to transform natural gas into a low-molecular-weight, octane-like hydrocarbon liquid.
Operating since 2015 as a subsidiary of Texas-based Petro Spring LLC – itself the technology-development subsidiary of Lone Star State utility Petro River Oil Corp. – Havelide was founded by Stephen Boyd, who is also chief technology officer of Holbrook-based Aufbau Laboratories.
Boyd is a true local-boy-makes-good-type: A graduate of Chaminade High School in Mineola, he earned a bachelor of science degree (in international finance) from Michigan State University before returning to Long Island to earn his PhD in chemistry and chemical physics from Stony Brook University.
His secret sauce at Havelide Systems involves the conversion of natural gas – essentially, elemental hydrogen – into a liquid. In its natural gaseous state, hydrogen is costly and dangerous to transport. But liquid hydrocarbons, on the other hands, are safer to store and transport.
The conversion process can essentially convert up to 89 percent of the weight of natural gas into a low-molecular-weight hydrocarbon, with the remaining weight available for recovery as H2 gas.
Boyd cites “many advantages to the utility industry” from his conversion technique, but for the prized pupil of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program, the most promising potential vertical is that safe and easy-to-transport additive for boosting motor-vehicle fuel economy – not only striking a blow for the environment, according to the innovator, but reducing American dependence on foreign oil sources.
Unique Technical Services
Innovator of the Year: Joseph Ambrosio
Location: Stony Brook
The skinny: Advanced services leveraging 25 years of technical expertise in electrical, mechanical, industrial, computer sciences and software engineering.
Utilizing the very latest engineering tools and techniques to design and perform computer-based simulations and a full range of laboratory and field-based environmental testing, Unique Technical Services is indeed unique on Long Island – a one-stop solutions provider for virtually any engineering challenge. As general manager of UTS – and as managing member of Smithtown-based Unique Electric Solutions, which focuses on electric and hybrid vehicle conversions – Joseph Ambrosio is a most influential innovator, overseeing a multitude of projects with wide-ranging environmental (and bottom-line) potential.
Ambrosio, who earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from NYIT-Old Westbury, boasts a lengthy background in the alternative-fuel transportation industry, including the development, testing and integration of a variety of liquid and gaseous fuel systems. He’s also worked with fuel cells, microturbines and many other cutting-edge designs.
A longtime member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, his professional experience includes ground-up design of electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems, the development of new energy-storage systems, the production of printed circuit boards and the creation of new industrial-engineering quality controls.
Ambrosio has also authored a number of published technical reports for the Electric Power Research Institute on battery energy and thermal management for heavy and light-duty electric vehicles.
Those myriad experiences and others fuel his efforts at UTS, which calls on an in-house engineering staff and vast network of experienced “technology partners” to provide customized electrical, software, mechanical, industrial-design and project-management solutions for customers of all shapes and sizes.
Ambrosio – a former GM and chief technology officer for ElectroMotive Designs, ex-president and CTO of the Odyne Corp. and one-time engineering director for APACE – holds seven battery and thermal management-related U.S. patents.
MASTER OF INNOVATION
Senior partner, Ruskin Moscou Faltischek
Chairman, Long Island Angel Network
Trustee, Sunrise Network
The skinny: Nobody does it like the former LIPA trustee and cofounder of Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, a veteran wheeler-dealer, rainmaker and trusted attorney who’s enjoyed a front-row perspective of the Long Island economy for nearly five decades.
Now a senior partner at Uniondale-based law firm Ruskin Moscou Faltischek P.C, Michael Faltischek has played a key role in the success and growth of the firm he founded after graduation from law school at the top of his class. The same can be said of his contributions to the Long Island economy, and to the Island community at large.
The 2018 Master of Innovation earned a bachelor’s degree at Pace University in 1968 and his JD, magna cum laude, from Brooklyn Law School in 1973. And he’s been tugging on the region’s socioeconomic strings ever since, from the 1974 co-founding of his namesake law firm to his 1995 appointment as a Long Island Power Authority trustee to his chairmanship of the seed-funding Long Island Angel Network.
With the other LI Angels, as cofounder of Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center and vice chairman of its Advisory Board, as general counsel to the New York Grid Consortium, as a former Long Island Association director, as an active trustee of the kids-with-cancer-focused Sunrise Foundation, as chairman of his firm’s Energy Industry Practice Group and in a dozen other professional and volunteer capacities, Faltischek has made a career of urging Long Island toward a brighter future.
It’s necessary work, he told Innovate LI back in 2015, with the Island still formulating its regional identity.
“We’re still at an early stage, compared to other innovation centers like Silicon Valley or Boston,” Faltischek noted three years ago. “Those are mature markets with many successes, and the people who have been successful have reinvested in those startup economies.”
Flash forward to 2018, and according to the innovation master, not much has changed in these parts. The science is still amazing. The entrepreneurs are still ambitious. But the struggle for startup capital remains fierce – ironically, Faltischek notes, due to the strength of the national innovation system, which continuously cranks out worthy opportunities for eager investors.
“I think the investment economy over the last two or three years has been so strong that there’s a disincentive for people to invest in the really early stages,” Faltischek says. “If you can make 20 or 30 percent a year investing in a rock-solid company, why would you take a flier on a startup? I think this has had a major effect on the willingness of the investor to invest in new opportunities, even good ones.”
For those reasons and others, Long Island’s innovation economy still faces an uphill fight, including a steady “brain drain” exodus of its brightest thinkers to greener markets. A new presidential stranglehold on federal research funding – at a time when Albany is urging Long Island to go all-in on life sciences, and the region is responding – hasn’t helped.
But under Faltischek’s guiding hand, the LIAN is still plugging away (total investments by members are now in the $35 million range, with lots of that coming in those all-important secondary and tertiary rounds).
And slowly, but surely, regional forces are beginning to collaborate in ways that make sense, insofar as creating the kind of business-building, jobs-generating economic “hub” so often references by rainmakers. The unique funding/coaching collaboration Accelerate Long Island, now working through its second iteration, is a good example, according to Faltischek.
But the region’s sharper focus on innovation investment is due primarily to the efforts of people like Faltischek, who has built a career on not only improving his personal or corporate bottom line but on bolstering the greater good of the region as a whole.
A tipping point – when returns on those more-established public companies decline and investors return to the kind of speculative, earlier-stage opportunities flowing regularly from Long Island’s world-class research facilities – is not far off, Faltischek predicts.
And when it comes, he says, it appears the Island’s scientific cornerstones will be ready – and the Island’s economy may finally be ready to stand toe-to-toe with Silicon Valley, Boston and other national centers of innovation.
“The major institutions have all formed their own venture funds,” Faltischek notes. “Northwell Health has its own venture capital fund, and a very substantial one, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has a very strong direct-investment network as well.
“When the returns in the investment market go back to something more mundane, people may then be willing to take some risks for some larger gains,” he adds. “And in terms of the institutions that foster opportunity on Long Island, we’re as strong as we ever were.”
FOOD & BEVERAGE
Don’s Finest Living Foods
Innovator of the Year: Don DiLillo
Location: Huntington Station
The skinny: Fresh-as-it-gets “living foods” – including microgreens, sprouts, veggies and more – custom-grown and hand-delivered by an urban-farming true believer
Don DiLillo’s entrepreneurial journey didn’t begin in a boardroom or even a classroom, but in his parents’ Huntington Station basement, where the innovator constructed his very first indoor “urban farm.” For the graduate of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, this was less a hobby than it was a mission. The agriculture enthusiast was bent on delivering “living foods” – plants harvested so young that their nutrients and vitamins are still super-concentrated – to the masses, or at least to customers within reasonable driving distance of his one-man startup, Don’s Finest Living Foods.
With word-of-mouth advertising and footwork aplenty, DiLillo – delivering a variety of microgreens, sprouts, wheatgrass and legumes – quickly built a following. Within nine months of launching Don’s Finest, he was able to move out his parents’ basement and into his own Huntington Station storefront.
Now two years into his urban-farming adventure, the entrepreneur has all kinds of growth plans, including an expanded farming operation incorporating both indoor and outdoor crops and a possible search for venture capital. But his attention right now is focused on launching “SproutBox,” his new DIY home-gardening kit, and on supplying the freshest-possible chickpea sprouts, broccoli microgreens and other “living foods” to his health-conscious (and comfortably increasing) customer base.
“Everything’s expanding at a really good pace for me,” DiLillo said. “It’s not too fast, it’s not too slow, and I’m able to take the extra money that I’m making and invest it.”
Innovator of the Year: Anna Kotler
The skinny: Decades of Fortune 500 experience feed a foodie-focused consultancy determined to keep things small
From the All Shapes and Sizes File comes Foodcubate, a Roslyn-based business consultancy with the pedigree of a Fortune 500 marketing department – and a mission statement determined to steer clear of it. Well, not exactly: Founder Anna Kotler, a 20-year veteran of the food-marketing business, absolutely makes use of her lengthy experience as a national brand-developer for Campbell’s Soup Co., Conagra Brands and other major-league distributors.
That résumé fuels Foodcubate, a networking hub giving regional kitchen-focused incubators and organizations a common stage to share resources and strengthen bonds through meetups and workshops. Kotler also services a select group of paying customers, working to strengthen their ties with government regulators and sharpen everything from business plans to VC pitches.
They are ideal challenges for a professional of Kotler’s considerable experience, and a unique offering in the burgeoning artisan-food industries. But with her home-based 2016 startup, the entrepreneur was determined to exercise some portion control.
“One of the benefits of working at a home office is that you don’t have to commute, and I’m working for myself, essentially,” Kotler told Innovate LI. “I make my own hours, I manage my own workload.”
So, she keeps that list of paying customers tight – but just because Kotler’s not out to grow Foodcubate into an Ernst & Young for edibles or a delectable Deloitte doesn’t mean the former C-suiter doesn’t keep busy.
In addition to Foodcubate, Kotler is also the cofounder and head of marketing for Kimchify, a 2016 Long Island City-based startup introducing new lines of packaged Korean BBQ in concert with two existing Korean-American brands.
Picking and choosing her spots – instead of pinning “success” on a progressive growth plan – allows this entrepreneur to focus on what she loves most, on her own terms.
“I’m really passionate about this stuff,” Kotler said. “I love the food industry. I love the direction that it’s going in.”
The Guac Shop
Innovators of the Year: Sergio DeCiantis, Carlos DeCiantis, Matthew Tesoriero, Patrick O’Halloran
Location: Garden City
The skinny: Serial restaurateur strikes again with authentic, seriously tasty Mexican grill
It debuted during one of the most brutal winters in Long Island history – but things are always sunny inside the Guac Shop Mexican Grill. The new Garden City eatery, which opened in the midst of Long Island’s late and pitiless Winter of 2018, keeps it light (Facebook and Yelp reviews rave about the festive décor and smiley service) and keeps it real with an authentic selection of slow-cooked barbacoa, pork carnitas and other genuine south-of-the-border selections, perhaps finished with chimichurri sauce and, of course, some killer guacamole.
Mexican fare is not exactly groundbreaking on Long Island, but finding a family-run restaurant that prides itself on authenticity is always a treat; when the owners are not Mexican, the odds grow longer.
Comida Mexicana is certainly new to restaurateur Sergio DeCiantis, even if restaurateuring isn’t. Representing the fourth DeCiantis generation in the business, Sergio is the owner of Park Place Restaurant & Bar in Floral Park and Seaford’s Cara Mia Restaurant.
He also signs the checks at one of Long Island’s most innovative eateries: Spoons Ice Cream & Cereal Bar, where traditional toppings like whipped cream and sprinkles are matched with everything from Frosted Flakes to Froot Loops – Corn Pops, Cocoa Krispies, Lucky Charms, Cap’N Crunch (all three kinds) and other favorites are on the menu.
Albeit without the cartoon tigers and green clovers, that same creativity infuses The Guac Shop, which Sergio opened with his father, successful restaurateur Carlos DeCiantis, and longtime partners Matthew Tesoriero and Patrick O’Halloran.
The new restaurant goes old world with its quesadillas and burrito bowls, then goes above and beyond the 21st Century Startup playbook: an Instagram account bulging with beauty shots, a Facebook page heavy with videos (and more than a thousand followers already), those fantastic Yelp reviews.
And in a true next-generation reach for the Millennial crowd, it also offers advanced online ordering. The Guac Shop has partnered on the recent innovation with Los Angeles-based ChowNow, a 2012 startup that lets customers digitally order their meals in advance and even set the pickup time.
Five North Chocolate
Innovator of the Year: Benjamin Conard
The skinny: Delicious chocolate shell around a heart of gold
Most people like chocolate (and for many, it goes deeper than “like”). But that smooth milk chocolate or delectable fudge might be a little harder to swallow if you think about where the candy came from. According to entrepreneur Benjamin Conard, two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown within five northern degrees of the equator – a global belt that includes cocoa farms in equatorial West Africa, where exploitation of farmers runs rampant.
Conard is no stranger to Innovate LI readers. Along with his father, Stony Brook Medicine laser technician Christopher Conard, the young entrepreneur spent years developing the Conard External Vortex Turbulence Attenuator – a now-patented device for improving wet/dry vacuum performance by trapping external exhaust – and launched CEVTA LLC in 2014.
With Five North Chocolate, the innovator – a 2016 graduate of SUNY Geneseo – has found a true sweet spot: A candy company committed to sourcing only the highest-quality Fair Trade Certified cocoa from around the world, creating delicious snacks with creamy moral centers.
Based in Stony Brook University’s food-focused Business Incubator at Calverton, the startup packs its bite-sized snacks with berries and nuts, but the tastiest ingredient might be that Fair Trade certification, denoting approval by Fair Trade USA.
The California-based global movement – a growing network of producers, shoppers, advocates and organizations – is focused on “putting people and the planet first,” according to the organization’s website, and that’s a perfect fit for Five North Chocolate, which conscientiously offers both wholesale and retail products.
The early-stage snack startup is already in 25 stores in eight states, including seven independent Long Island shops. And of course, it offers all the trappings of a 21st century launch, including thriving social media accounts and subscription-based e-mail updates.
In addition to its digital acumen and despite its rapid success, Conard’s award-winning 2016 startup (including a $10,000 prize in a “Shark Tank”-like business-plan competition hosted in 2017 by i-Hamptons) also adheres to several tried-and-true early-stage chestnuts, including appearances at numerous trade shows and artisan food events.
Innovators of the Year: Aviv and Eran Raitses
The skinny: Supermarket chain redefines “green,” and gets proactive on Long Island hunger
Several supermarkets offer online ordering, so Best Market isn’t exactly breaking new ground there – though its nine-month-old affiliation with Instacart does include neighborhoods surrounding all 26 of its Long Island stores, a fairly ginormous coverage area. And many markets donate leftovers to food banks – though Best Market’s ongoing partnership with Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank is about to hit an unprecedented high note.
And Best Market is hardly the first chain to incorporate earth-friendly “green” technologies – but few take it as far as dispatching teams in a hybrid-electric fleet or installing waste-reducing “food digestors.”
According to Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Yonkers, the credit goes to Best Market owners Aviv and Eran Raitses, “who believe strongly in being as ‘green’ as possible.”
“It’s very important to them to keep the environment clean,” Yonkers told Innovate LI. “We’re trying to sell clean food as well – lots of organic and everything fresh, from the fish to the dairy to the meat to the bakery.”
Fresh, of course, is another supermarket staple, but again, few chains offer so much proof with their pudding. Last year, Best Market made its Massapequa store one of the first two in the chain powered completely by solar energy – and now boasts an eco-friendly fleet of company cars, with operations personnel zipping around in electric- and hybrid-electric vehicles.
Partnering with Instacart was a natural innovation – “We saw a need for our customers to have home delivery, and this was the most efficient way,” Yonkers noted – as was the recent introduction of reusable “green” shopping bags.
But installing “food digestors” at stores in Harlem and Astoria went above and beyond. The machines turn potential landfill waste into an environmentally friendly, sewer-safe greywater – and with the NYC digestors doing their thing, Best Market is now looking to spread the technology around, including work with the Long Island Association to potentially bring the digestors east.
Meanwhile, the Bethpage-based chain, which has long enjoyed an association with the Harry Chapin Food Bank, is preparing to announce a new collaboration that will regularly share unprecedented tons of dairy, produce and more with Long Island Cares.
Yonkers, who helped bring Best Market and the Hauppauge-based food bank together years ago, said it’s been a joy to help that innovative relationship grow.
“It’s really been something to see,” he said.
INNOVATION SUPPORT SYSTEM
Innovator of the Year: Graham Beck
Location: Long Beach
The skinny: A co-working environment for beachgoing entrepreneurs who prefer a little sand and surf with their shared conference rooms and WiFi connectivity
You might expect that Graham Beck, son of Planet Payment founder Phillip Beck, wouldn’t fall far from his father’s entrepreneurial tree. But having innovation in your DNA is no guarantee of success – and while this Innovator of the Year has certainly succeeded, he’s done it on his own terms. Beck has followed a winding career path from Syracuse University (BS, biology, 2014) to the mobile-app business to his current ventures – Bridgeworks, a Long Beach co-working enterprise that caters to Long Island’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, and DropDesk, a software maker creating digital solutions for on-the-go businesspeople (primarily, and not coincidentally, the clients and managers of shared professional spaces).
Less than a year in, DropDesk is still perfecting its scheduling, billing, lead-generation, and communal-kitchen-stocking functionality. But the software enterprise has a killer hook up its digital sleeve: Bridgeworks, which not only sparked Beck’s original idea for the software service but has greatly influenced its shape.
“Building this space from the ground up, a lot of the software we used was clunky,” Beck told Innovate LI. “It had been out for a while, it wasn’t that user-friendly and it didn’t really resolve the pain points of operating a co-working space.”
By using his 2016 co-working startup as the ultimate beta test, Beck has quickly fashioned a software product that offers real benefits to co-working space managers and clients alike – while he and his software designers continue to add bells and whistles based on firsthand experiences in Long Beach.
They certainly have plenty of user input: Bridgeworks, which quickly filled up its first 8,000-square-foot space on Harrison Street, has already built out an adjacent space, creating a second 8,000-square-foot shared-office-by-the-sea.
Now, with a “campus-type situation” in effect and his latest startup developing the best operational protocols to make it all tick, Beck is thinking big – a trait he definitely shares with his father.
“We want to create a real Long Beach business campus and expand it as much as possible, maybe 30,000-plus square feet,” he said. “Then, we’ll try to go everywhere we can – strategic places, where we can offer our members the greatest benefits. We’re thinking very big picture.”
Composite Prototyping Center
Innovator of the Year: Leonard Poveromo
The skinny: A nonprofit manufacturing mecca specializing in carbon fibers, ceramics and other non-traditional building blocks
When it opened in 2014, Plainview’s Composite Prototyping Center did so under the steadiest of hands: Executive Director Lenny Poveromo, who brought a solid education, decades of cutting-edge manufacturing experience and super-fine networking credentials to the self-billed “highly specialized visionary entryway into the future.” Staffed by leading composites experts, the state-of-the-art, nonprofit CPC actually matches that lofty description – a cutting-edge design, prototyping, testing and training facility built specifically to erase boundaries, expand manufacturing opportunities and help regional businesses of all sizes compete in the dynamic, expanding global aerospace, automotive, energy and consumer products markets, among others.
At the center of it all is Poveromo, who earned a BS in chemical engineering from Lehigh University and an MBA from Hofstra and formerly directed East Coast technology development for Northrop Grumman, in addition to serving on the advisory boards of Stony Brook University’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology and Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, among other influential posts.
Proud of what he calls “a center that’s unique in the United States,” the executive director trumpets the CPC’s $15 million worth of next-level manufacturing and prototyping equipment and “synergistic” relationships with universities and corporations both big and small, including several gravitating toward Plainview from off-Island locales.
Poveromo also notes his center’s strong ties to SBU’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Tennessee-based Institute for Advanced Composite Manufacturing Innovation, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (and matching private-industry grants) and reviews IACMI-affiliate applications for project-by-project capital stipends.
Those kinds of connections are essential for a nonprofit organization that works “at the higher end – working with advanced materials and advanced manufacturing concepts and helping to translate them into new concepts for these companies,” according to its director.
“I do believe Long Island has a strong future in manufacturing, but high-end manufacturing, using computers and robotics,” Poveromo told Innovate LI. “The future is in nanotechnology and 3D printing and advanced materials designed with sophisticated computers and manufactured with advanced techniques.”
Innovator of the Year: Phil Rugile
The skinny: The “poster child for creating new companies and creating new jobs”
“Down time” isn’t high up on Phil Rugile’s list. There’s precious little of it when you pull double duty as director of the uber-active LaunchPad Huntington and as “human capital strategist” for eGifter, the Huntington-based digital gifting/corporate prepaid solutions specialist that remains one of Long Island’s first and best e-commerce successes. Rugile’s best-known efforts are made via LaunchPad Huntington, which opened in 2014. Since then, the director has honed the co-working space into a precision instrument of business-incubation and job-creation, including economic-development partnerships with the statewide nonprofit Workforce Development Institute, Stony Brook University and other regional rainmakers.
One of the reasons for the shared office’s dynamic success, according to Rugile, is a subtle shift in its original focus. Designed to primarily champion tech startups, like other links in the LaunchPad Long Island chain, LaunchPad Huntington pivoted enough to embrace “a total mix of marketing people, food companies, commercial marine-engine technologies and philanthropy platforms” Rugile told Innovate LI.
Even a “Shark Tank” facsimile for nonprofits and a burgeoning investment fund have passed through Rugile’s doors. But despite the rapid-fire success, the director has kept his eyes on the ball, filling the facility’s events calendar with job fairs, product showcases, interactive lectures and other programming designed to benefit his resident-clients and the regional innovation economy.
Another primary focus has been on workforce development, a mission LaunchPad Huntington often shares with the WDI’s regional office and SBU’s Manufacturing Technology Resource Consortium. LaunchPad may be intended primarily to support startups, Rugile noted, but the bottom line is about creating Island jobs.
“We’re doing a lot of community- and workforce-development initiatives, all part of the overall puzzle, which is fitting it all together to create jobs,” he said. “That’s why we work closely with the industrial-development agencies and why they support us – we’re the poster child for creating new companies and creating new jobs.”
LISTnet/The Digital Ballpark
Innovators of the Year: Peter Goldsmith, Paul Trapani
The skinny: Co-working spaces and business-development programming powered by the Long Island Software & Technology Network
Can it be that it took Innovate LI three full “Innovator of the Year” cycles to recognize the contributions of Peter Goldsmith? Fortunately, our overdue overture gave the LISTnet chairman and his partner, LISTnet President Paul Trapani, time to plump up operations at the Digital Ballpark, the Plainview-based co-working space LISTnet opened in 2016. Originally filling 5,500 renovated square feet inside 100 Terminal Drive, the Ballpark – a joint project with Stony Brook University’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology and Infosys International, which owns the building – quickly grew to fill 9,000 square feet.
Today, Goldsmith and Trapani juggle a roster of roughly 20 resident-clients, attracted by the shared office’s business-friendly amenities, topflight connectivity, networking opportunities and entrepreneurial atmosphere – not to mention Friday “happy hour” events, high-tech product showcases and other fringe benefits.
Meanwhile, the Digital Ballpark has been green-stamped by an all-Island collection of sponsors, including Hofstra University, NYIT, SUNY-Old Westbury, Melville law firm Carter Deluca Farrell & Schmidt and other major-league companies and organizations eager to support LISTnet’s primary mission of promoting regional technology industries.
In additiona to continuing that longstanding focus, the Ballpark sharpens it by promoting the participation of women and minority business owners in technology trades. Among the co-working space’s first resident-clients were five women-owned businesses and two owned by entrepreneurs of Indian descent – and that was no accident, according to Goldsmith, who noted “an overall shortage of high-tech people on Long Island.”
“We’re putting a big focus on women-owned businesses,” Goldsmith told Innovate LI. “You’ve got to get more women and minorities involved just to fill the void.
“Technology has nothing to do with the color of your skin or your gender,” he added. “Technology is about ability. So, we’re trying to break some of those barriers.”
Workforce Development Institute
Innovator of the Year: Rosalie Drago
The skinny: Low-profile, high-impact nonprofit focused on job creation and retention. Big fan (and frequent programmatic and financial supporter) of academia/industry/government collaborations
After cutting her teeth on tourism and economic-development issues between the Jersey Shore and Brooklyn, Rosalie Drago was ready for action in 2014, when she became Long Island regional director for the Albany-based Workforce Development Institute (stationed first in Mineola, later inside LaunchPad Huntington). Since then, Drago – who earned a master’s degree in public administration from NYU – has championed the statewide nonprofit’s mission of tracking employment trends, identifying current and future workforce challenges and fostering innovative solutions. The regional director focuses much of her office’s energies on manufacturing concerns – a major cog in Long Island’s socioeconomic engine, according to Drago, who perceives multiple important definitions for buzzwords like “technology” and “innovation.”
“Every major industry is about innovation and technology,” Drago told Innovate LI. “If you’re a line worker in a plant or you’re an engineer or you’re anything else, you’re using technology.”
Such thinking infused many 2017 efforts by the regional WDI office, including career-training programs, specifically for women, organized in conjunction with Merrick-based New York American Water and Nassau Community College. Ingenuity was also on display during a May 2017 walking tour of some of the East End’s most prolific winemaking facilities, which Drago organized for a select group of educators, hospitality professionals and economic-development experts – each with a particular interest in plugging the Island’s infamous “brain drain.”
Helping the next-generation workforce recognize the professional opportunities available on Long Island – and helping employers retain those jobs and create new ones – is the mission, Drago notes, and “the innovation economy is key.”
“People need to realize there are jobs here,” she said. “And understand that innovation and creativity are embedded in every industry.”
Innovator of the Year: Paul Lipsky
The skinny: Digital dynamo with distinct talents for the commercial, the educational and the community-focused
Digital innovator Paul Lipsky is rewriting the book on interactive computer graphics. As in, literally: With the New York State Department of Education’s blessing, Dix Hills-based Five Towns College has introduced two- and four-year Interactive Computer Graphics degree programs based on curricula written by Lipsky, CEO of Plainview’s MindYolk Animation Studio.
Lipsky, also an adjunct Hofstra University instructor, had long discussed a potential ICG degree program with his old pal David Cohen, the Five Towns College president and former dean of academic affairs. When he delivered the roughly 500-page plan –blending business- and workforce-development skills with 3D modeling and other next-gen digital-art tools – and earned Department of Education approval in 2017, it was a crowning achievement of sorts.
But hardly the only jewel in Lipsky’s digital tiara: His Plainview studio has produced a plethora of virtual- and augmented-reality content, 3D animations and other cutting-edge visuals for an increasing breadth of clients, from regional Halloween haunted-house producers to Brazilian shipping magnates to clients as far afield as Ireland and Taiwan.
With 24 hours in a day, Lipsky has also found time to launch and direct Long Island Visual Professionals – not a networking group, exactly, but a support group of sorts for digital entrepreneurs. The Island-centric group meets regularly (there’s often pizza) to discuss and promote topics and tools related to visual media.
With the first-annual LIVP Awards scheduled for May and other digital hats piling upon his head, Lipsky is one of Long Island’s busiest innovators. But making connections, he notes, is his primary function.
“Everyone thinks they live in a freaking silo,” Lipsky said. “They don’t see what could happen if they pooled their energy and resources and worked together.”
Innovator of the Year: Michael Eller, Ross Schneidman, Brian Torpey and Christopher Zavala
Location: Northwell Health
The skinny: “Smart” drop-points facilitating easy delivery and pickup of laboratory samples
In a true case of innovation answering a direct need, four Northwell Health Labs inventors put their heads together to do something about all those “dead stops.” Frustrated by a high number of incidents in which third-party laboratory clients failed to leave specimens in transportation containers for scheduled pick-ups by Northwell Health drivers, the team of outside-the-box thinkers came up with SmartBox.
Designed by collaborators Michael Eller, Ross Schneidman, Brian Torpey and Christopher Zavala, SmartBox automatically notifies a centralized logistics server when a laboratory sample is present – reducing wasted trips, decreasing turnaround times and increasing client satisfaction, according to its developers.
Eller, Northwell Health Labs’ assistant vice president of project and planning management, said the team “set out to address a lab-transport inefficiency” with its contraption – in essence, directly answering a recognized need – and has been “thrilled” by their idea’s rapid progression.
That includes top honors in the Large-Scale Margin Improvement category of the 2017 Northwell Health Innovation Challenge, which invited Northwell’s 63,000-plus employees to trumpet their best ideas in a health-system-wide business-plan competition.
The four-man SmartBox squad earned $500,000 in business-building capital, one of two top prizes awarded in the 2017 Innovation Challenge.” The money is being well-spent, according to Eller, bringing a much-needed innovation to market.
“Implementing this tool will save more than 2,500 wasted hours each month and improve care by delivering faster lab results to our patients and practitioners,” the vice president said.
The Sensory Room
Innovator of the Year: Mitchell Nagler, Adelphi University
Location: Garden City
The skinny: A calming space for students and other campus-community members on the autism spectrum, filled with sensory-soothing accouterments
Heralded as the first of its kind at any U.S. college or university, Adelphi University has introduced a “sensory room” for students and other campus-community members on the autism spectrum. Part of the Garden City-based university’s Bridges to Adelphi program, the space – which came together in 2017 and was officially introduced in January of 2018 – was funded by a private donation from KultureCity, an Alabama-based nonprofit supporting people with autism spectrum disorders, including efforts to improve societal acceptance.
The Sensory Room is stocked with creature comforts designed to engage the senses: a cocoon-like swing, thick-padded floor mats, cushy beanbag chairs and a water-filled “sensory wall” with slow-rising bubbles, all in a quiet, low-lighting space intended specifically as a tranquil refuge for anyone in the campus community with an ASD or other sensory-based special needs.
Soothing people on the autism spectrum is the main thrust of KultureCity’s nationwide Sensory Initiative, which hosts similar calming rooms inside major league sports arenas, zoos and other public venues around the country.
The Alabama nonprofit’s mission is right in line with Bridges to Adelphi, which this year marks a decade of providing academic, social and vocational support – including pre-enrollment services and post-graduation job-placement assistance – to students on the autism spectrum.
The program is directed by Mitch Nagler, assistant director of the Adelphi Student Counseling Center and a member of the first class to graduate from the mental health counseling master’s degree program at Adelphi University’s Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies.
The Sensory Room, according to the Bridges to Adelphi director, is aptly named and perfectly designed to do what the university and KultureCity intend.
“It’s an environment that will soothe students,” Nagler said.
Innovators of the Year: Tal Berke, Stephanie Cummings
The skinny: Waterproof anti-mooching safe, ideal for shared showers in apartments and dorms
From wet dream to Bed Bath & Beyond (and beyond) in just two years, The Shlocker – flagship effort of 2015 Bridgehampton-based startup Tula Industries – is a textbook example of clever innovation answering a basic need. In this case, a need to stop moochers who don’t think twice about swiping soap, shampoo and other personal products from shared showers in dorms, apartments and other communal spaces.
It was a problem that had dogged inventor Tal Berke all his life, with family members and later roommates ravaging his razors and otherwise pinching his products. Fed up, the Stony Brook University graduate – a political science bachelor’s degree with a prelaw concentration – devised a plan for a lockable shower caddy.
In 2015, alongside life and business partner Stephanie Cummings (bachelor’s degree in sociology, SUNY Fredonia), Berke officially launched Tula Industries expressly for the purposes of producing and marketing the Shlocker, a soak-able safe that adheres to shower walls with industrial-strength suction cups and keeps conditioners, creams and whatever else secure behind a waterproof combination lock.
Business formation didn’t come cheaply – the duo estimates a $30,000 investment to design, test and start producing the Shlocker, including multiple trips to deal with Chinese manufacturers. But within two years, the investment was paying off: the shower safe had earned Tula Industries’ first U.S. design patent, while Berke and Cummings had landed a major-league distribution deal putting the Shlocker in nearly 100 Bed Bath & Beyond locations across the country, and on the ubiquitous retailer’s busy website.
The patent “really shows the viability of the unique product,” Berke noted, and while “we really didn’t prepare for this to happen so quickly,” the young entrepreneurs realize that’s a very good problem to have.
“They’re a really dynamic retail partner and definitely the best place we could have hoped to place our product,” Cummings said of Bed Bath & Beyond. “We’re super-grateful.”
Innovator of the Year: Joan Bucchino
The skinny: Straight from the Heartbreak to Heroism file, as mom turns personal tragedy into inspirational hope
Joan Bucchino would like to introduce you to Amazing Grace, the angelic inspiration behind SMARTgame. Bucchino, who lost her 13-year-old daughter Grace to the rare metabolic disorder Sanfilippo syndrome in 2014, is the creator of the game, a series of pay-it-forward challenges designed to empower youngsters while promoting kind and healthy habits – useful for any child, but especially for kids with developmental delays who may need social coaching.
As president and strategic director of Huntington-based J. Grace Corp., the heartfelt entrepreneur works to bridge the gap between homes, schools and communities by empowering young children with successful habits. It all revolves around SMARTgame, a powerful and versatile tool designed to teach young children (ages 4 to 11) to make productive choices independently and consistently.
The game harnesses the power of play, imagination, community and nature to work on players’ foundational levels to protect them from future problems of the mind, body and spirit. It involves different challenges played over a course of days or even weeks, including the fruit-and-veggie-focused Five Each Day game, Fit Kids USA – daring kids to complete 60 minutes of daily physical activity – and Read It, Write It, Rock It, which leads players down a literary path.
There’s also the Love My Planet challenge, which includes seedlings to plant, and for special-needs kids who may need help with social clues – kids on the autism spectrum, for instance – there are challenges like Let’s Be Friends, which requires players to share, compliment their classmates and engage in other socially constructive behaviors.
The whole idea, according to Bucchino, is to customize the playability to meet each player’s individual needs – an essential ingredient when working to create better habits among society’s youngest (and most impressionable) members.
“It all depends on the child,” Bucchino noted. “Social skills are a problem for a lot of kids, but most of them have the cognitive ability to understand doing things to move a piece up a board.”
If her entrepreneurial experiences have taught Bucchino anything, it’s that all children have a great capacity to learn – and to teach.
“Children are our teachers, in many ways,” the innovator said. “I learned how to change the behaviors of thousands of kids at a time, just by watching my little daughter, who couldn’t even speak.”