When Elon Musk came to Shoreham

Center of attention: Contamination is cleared, landscaping looks good ... now onto physical rehabilitation of the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Spoiler alert: He hasn’t, yet.

But with the South African-born Canadian-American magnate, engineer and inventor already investing $1 million in the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe – and the Musk Foundation promising more support – there’s a chance the man himself might grace the grounds of his most famous company’s namesake.

“It’s possible,” according to Marc Alessi, executive director of the coming-soon center, who traces the Musk Foundation’s first $1 million stake – and its commitment to build an on-site charging station for Tesla Motors electric vehicles – to a 2013 Indiegogo campaign that, for a spell, was the most successful crowdfunding effort of all time.

The campaign was hosted by an organization of Nikola Tesla fans looking to purchase and remediate the environmentally damaged, aesthetically neglected Shoreham property that was once the inventor’s domain.

Marc Alessi: The startup guy.

Marc Alessi: The startup guy.

It meandered along until it caught the eye of comedic cartoonist Matt Inman, creator of popular blogsite The Oatmeal. Many of Inman’s followers, according to Alessi, are “self-identified geeks who love Tesla,” a Serbian American inventor, engineer and physicist – and big-time rival of his more famous contemporary, Thomas Edison – known best for his contributions to the modern alternating-current electricity supply system.

Inman’s army rallied to the cause, pushing the Indiegogo campaign past the then-record $1.3 million mark.

“So that helped the organization buy and preserve the lab and put a little bit of money in the bank to do the things it needed to do,” Alessi noted. “But it still had to raise more money, obviously.”

Around this time, just as Shoreham resident Alessi – a former New York State Assemblyman who heads the economic development practice group at Ronkonkoma law firm Campolo, Middleton & McCormick – was becoming involved as a Tesla Science Center board observer, Inman “threw down a challenge to Elon Musk,” as Alessi put it.

The challenge: Since the galactic success of Tesla Motors was based directly on the inventor’s induction motor designs, its CEO should help lift the Tesla museum off the ground. Inman’s basic message to the billionaire industrialist was “Tesla needs you,” Alessi noted, “and Musk responded.”

Elon Musk: Site inspection?

Elon Musk: Site inspection?

At 2 a.m., in fact, with a Tweet on Musk’s personal Twitter account asking how he could help. That led to a conference call between Tesla Science Center President Jane Alcorn and the Musk Foundation, which ultimately agreed to the $1 million contribution and the future construction of a Tesla charging station somewhere on the Route 25A property.

Alessi, who is also CEO of Stony Brook medical-imaging startup SynchroPET, has since become the science center’s executive director – a “natural fit,” he noted, considering his longtime familiarity with Alcorn’s organization and his long experience with early-stage business formation.

“I’m a startup guy and I want to help them through their startup process, and get them where they need to be,” he told Innovate LI. “This is what I do.”

What they’ve done, so far, is invest their Indiegogo and Musk Foundation spoils in multiple rehabilitation efforts. The goal is a world-class museum that doubles as a modern innovation hub – complete with working laboratories – and Job No. 1 has been planning the rehabilitation of structures and landscapes around the 14-acre, four-building campus.

Among the first planned projects is the renovation of an old house on the property (Tesla never lived there), which will be reborn as the science center’s administrative offices. Used and abused by its subsequent owners – Belgium imaging conglomerate Agfa-Gevaert and Peerless Photo Products, an Agfa subsidiary – “the house is now derelict,” Alessi said, and the science center is awaiting Town of Brookhaven permits before starting rehab work.

The remediated federal Superfund site – Peerless’ unchecked photo-processing procedures caused a localized environmental calamity – received state Department of Environmental Conservation clearance in 2015, according to Alessi. Permanent monitoring of on-site wells will be necessary, but only those town permits are delaying the administration building project.

Depending on timing and funding, the administration renovation will coincide with or be followed by an overhaul of the “program building,” Alessi said, referencing a single-story, 10,000-square-foot structure with a completely open floor plan – a “very flexible” space, the exec added, that will be recuperated into the multiuse heart of the Tesla complex.

“It will have exhibit space, classroom space and community space,” he said. “We’ve already had requests from all over the world to host weddings and other events on the site.

“We started with these two buildings because they’re not historical,” Alessi added, noting the cinderblock program building dates only to the 1970s. “It’s a lot easier to do the kind of construction we need to, and the first order is getting some exhibit space open to the public.”

Best case is the administration and program buildings are both completed early next year. Administrators are currently performing a “historical analysis” of Tesla’s actual laboratory building, according to Alessi, a step toward future renovations.

Designed for Tesla by famed architect Stanford White, the laboratory was also gutted and re-tasked by its subsequent occupants, including a number of add-on structures that will be removed to recapture the size and scope of Tesla’s original workspace, Alessi said.

The science center is considering adding a glass atrium to the lab for receptions and additional exhibit space. Other long-term ambitions include an on-site business incubator/maker space that carries Tesla’s innovation legacy into the next century.

Where such an incubator might physically go is a part of the science center’s long-term planning process. When, Alessi noted, depends on future fundraising efforts, which should be energized when Tesla Science Center representatives take a meet-and-greet tour of Silicon Valley later this year.

“We’re planning a trip to meet with the Musk Foundation and update them on our progress at the site, and to talk about long-term planning and support from Silicon Valley in general,” Alessi said, noting the science center is anticipating “introductions to other entrepreneurs who might be interested.”

The Shoreham squad will also stop by the offices of Google.Org, charitable arm of the all-powerful multinational tech titan, which has already anted $75,000 into the science center pot. Those sorts of high-profile donations are enormous, Alessi noted, as the science center “looks to open up more channels of support from the innovators of today.”

Whether or not all this ultimately draws a visit from the SpaceX CEO himself remains to be seen, but the primary goal is to draw everyone else with a major-league “destination museum” that, according to Alessi, pays homage to Tesla while “inspiring the innovators of tomorrow.”

“This is also going to put Shoreham on the map for something positive, as opposed to a decommissioned nuclear power plant,” he added. “It’s the beginning of a great story about innovation.”


1 Comment on "When Elon Musk came to Shoreham"

  1. “It meandered along….”

    This blog describes the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened while it meandered along:

    http://www.offthereservation.net/2012/08/how-little-bit-of-stirring-pot-saved.html

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