Checking in on LI’s post-doctoral promise

Mark Lesko, former Accelerate LI chief and current executive dean of Hofstra's Center for Entrepreneurship.

By GREGORY ZELLER // When Accelerate Long Island chief Mark Lesko takes the stage Friday at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s annual Postdoc Retreat – as part of a panel on regional startup opportunities – he’ll pack a portfolio brimming with evidence of the Island’s entrepreneurial health.

He’ll also bear glad tidings for the future of what he considers LI’s “dynamic entrepreneurial environment.”

Accelerate, a commercialization catalyst bridging ideas and investments, has now staked nine early-stage Long Island companies, including startups spun out of CSHL, North Shore-LIJ’s Feinstein medical research institute and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Five are in some way related to Stony Brook University, and no surprise, Lesko noted, considering “the size and depth of SBU’s research.”

A 10th and final investment is pending, with a probable announcement by month’s end.

The investments, made with Jove Equity Partners of Setauket and Roslyn’s Topspin Partners, create a portfolio “I would match with any investment portfolio anywhere,” Lesko said.

“We’ve made major strides in proving there are a number of research projects with tremendous commercial appeal, and if you focus on the very early stages and deploy a relatively modest amount of capital, they’ll thrive,” Lesko told Innovate LI. “We have invested in some tremendous companies, usually the first capital in, and now there are opportunities on Long Island that didn’t exist four years ago.

“This is how you prime the pump,” he added. “The model is working.”

That’s the message Lesko plans to deliver when he joins Teri Willey, CSHL’s vice president of business development; Sam Hall, a scientist and private equity investor at Manhattan VC firm Apple Tree Partners; and other luminaries on a panel discussing Long Island’s startup environment.

The CSHL retreat includes a full day of discussions followed by a barbecue relaxer on Banbury Beach, all focused on post-doctorate career development in academia and industry.

In addition to startup opportunities, the retreat is slated to explore professional-development angles including careers in academia and science publishing, “grantsmanship” for postdoctoral researchers and corporate biotech and pharma opportunities.

Scheduled panelists include representatives from CSHL and SBU – primarily professors and program directors – with expected visits from Pfizer, Merck, D.E. Shaw Research, Columbia University, the New York Academy of Sciences and other commercial and academic stalwarts.

Unlike a few years ago, when he was Brookhaven Town supervisor and lobbying for an early-stage engine like Accelerate, or when the fledgling organization was struggling for a foothold, Lesko can present the audience with proof of the Island’s evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Now, when I talk to postdocs and PhD students, we actually have stories to tell them, as opposed to only speculating about the future,” he said. “You can actually point to a Codagenix and say, ‘We seeded them, and then they had a $2 million round.’”

What that means to Long Island postdocs, Lesko added, is opportunity, right here.

“It all translates into jobs for the super-smart postdoc and PhD students, who are on Long Island in abundance,” he said. “We’re not talking about a couple dozen … we’re talking about hundreds of them, many of whom have expressed interest in starting or working for startup companies.”

Additional investment is also in the offing. Accelerate has been selected to manage one of five $1.5 million pre-seed investment purses through the state’s Innovation Technology and Commercialization Fund – thereby tripling the $500,000 Accelerate brought to bear in its first funding round.

That should be welcome news at Friday’s conference.

“We have a very specific story to tell them,” Lesko said. “Here are the nine companies in the Accelerate portfolio. We’re about to add a 10th and start a new seed fund that will add another 10 or 20. These companies are raising big dollars, and those dollars translate directly into jobs.”