In SBU’s incubators, it’s all about who you know

Standing room: There was networking aplenty at Stony Brook University's 2017 Incubator Showcase.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

From the Couldn’t Have Done It Without You file comes the 2017 Incubator Showcase, a victory lap for past and current products of Stony Brook University’s diverse economic-development ecosystem – many of whom say they’d have been nonstarters without the university’s help.

Packed into a large conference space inside SBU’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, Thursday’s event was an impressive sight indeed: dozens of early-stage enterprises representing a wide spectrum of industries, from clean energy and craft beverages to nanotech and Big Data.

Some of the presenters were barely out of the gates. Urban Freight Corp., a member of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program and graduate of the university’s 2017 Innovation Boot Camp, is still in its formative stage – when ready, it will look to ease New York City truck traffic with an all-electric “last mile” cargo-delivery system – but already appreciates the benefits of Stony Brook’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, according to founder Jeffrey Kinzler.

Talking points: SulfCrete founder William Biamonte (left), Green Framework CEO Barbara Dutton-Weingarten and CEBIP exec David Hamilton chat it up.

“It’s been a tremendous boost in getting our startup off the ground,” Kinzler said. “Patent attorneys, mentoring, financial advisement, networking … it’s provided a tremendous amount of resources that you’d have to look really hard to find, all concentrated in one place.”

Other showcase companies, such as health-management solutions provider Softheon and concrete-alternative manufacturer Green SulfCrete LLC, were more established. Softheon, a longtime CEWIT resident, is often referenced as the poster child of SBU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, having grown from a handful of employees to a staff of roughly 150 in just four years.

But even those advanced firms are quick to note the influence of the university’s incubator network. William Biamonte, who licensed a sulfur polymer technology from Brookhaven National Laboratory to launch Green SulfCrete, noted bluntly that even with the rights to the next-level construction material in hand, “I don’t think Sulfcrete would have survived as a fledgling startup without the Stony Brook ecosystem.”

“There was just so much networking and support and guidance,” Biamonte noted. “Meeting with the [Long Island Angels Network], meeting with investors … that wouldn’t have happened without Stony Brook’s help.”

That’s the whole ball of wax, noted Yacov Shamash, SBU’s vice president of economic development, who said the university’s entire incubator ecosystem is designed to provide equal amounts of material support and networking opportunities.

“Investments are really an important part, but that’s not really our primary role,” Shamash said Thursday. “That’s just a product of the network we know and the people we bring to bear through events like this.”

And events like the Incubator Showcase prove it’s working, the VP added, while suggesting a bright future for the regional innovation economy.

“It talks a lot not just about Stony Brook, but the whole of Long Island,” Shamash told Innovate LI. “The entrepreneurial spirit is mobilized. Whether it’s here, whether it’s at the (LaunchPad) Huntington incubator or the [Digital Ballpark] in Plainview … if you add it all up, you have over a hundred companies.

“All it takes is for two or three of them to really break out, and you’ll have a major, major impact on Long Island.”

While the access to funding opportunities is critical – Ramuel Maramara, founder of wave-energy pioneer Brimes Energy, credited his participation in the CEBIP program as the primary catalyst for the $375,000 his startup has so far raised from outside investors – many SBU-incubated success stories championed the easy access to SBU laboratories, faculty and students as the ecosystem’s primary advantages.

Crowded house: Entrepreneurs, investors and other curious types mix it up at SBU’s 2017 Incubator Showcase.

Jerritt Gluck, cofounder and CEO of Bonded Energy Solutions, said acceptance into CEBIP resulted in a “wonderful awakening” for his 2013 startup, which is looking to put a 21st century efficiency spin on centuries-old steam-heat systems.

“I came into the Stony Brook incubator system as a good engineer with a partner who’s a great software guy,” Gluck noted. “We thought we had everything it takes.

“But the team is the most critical part of any business,” he added. “You can have a good product, but with the wrong team, it won’t take off.”

That’s one of several critical lessons the entrepreneur learned working with the likes of CEBIP Executive Director David Hamilton and Hans Nordemann, the president of Norquest Capital LLC and a frequent CEBIP collaborator.

“They’re the people who educated us about the value of the team,” Gluck said. “By getting a network of people in critical mass in an area, you can create a synergy you wouldn’t find otherwise. A good engineer, a good business-development person, a good communications and sales person … it’s that whole group that learns to work well together.”

“Networking with the ecosystem at large is a big win for these startups,” agreed Hamilton, who said events like the Incubator Showcase spotlight that particular benefit – not only by introducing entrepreneurs to new talent but to “contacts for future professional partnerships, which will help them develop further down the road.”

“At events like this, they have to learn really quickly how to express their thoughts in just a couple of seconds, how to have a dialogue about what they’re doing,” Hamiton noted. “How to communicate with the real world. This is a wonderful learning experience.”

Yacov Shamash: Innovation economy is looking good.

For Marc Alessi – founder of next-gen scanning-tech pioneer SynchroPET, a 2012 startup slated to test it first commercial product this summer – the Incubator Showcase is exactly that learning experience, but also proof-positive of the evolution of SBU’s economic-development chops.

“I’ve seen this entrepreneurial ecosystem mature exponentially over the past couple of years,” Alessi noted. “I don’t think it would have been possible to get as far as we have if we tried to do this 10 or 15 years ago.

“The culture just wasn’t here,” he added. “But people are becoming more understanding of how difficult it is to launch a startup like this, and this ecosystem is trying to lend support.”

That lesson wasn’t lost on Barbara Dutton-Weingarten, the founder of startup Green Framework, which is focused on producing clean-energy sources for the maritime industry. The enterprise is still in its pre-launch phase, but the entrepreneur attended the Incubator Showcase to see how SBU might help 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 noted. “And we think it will help us make connections and possibly get some funding.

“We’re really hoping to become a CEBIP client.”

That’s music to SBU’s ears, according to Shamash, who suggested the university’s recent takeover of Empire State Development’s regional Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program, numerous Centers of Excellence and energy centers and thriving incubator system create a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs like Dutton-Weingarten.

“It’s a very powerful combination of economic-development tools,” Shamash said. “I don’t think such an ecosystem exists anywhere else in New York State.”


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