Gerrit Wolf is minding innovation’s business

Gerrit Wolf: Not sheepish about Long Island innovation.

The Innovation Center stands out from Stony Brook University’s rich selection of business incubators and entrepreneurship programs for many reasons, but the first is this: Unlike the university’s other business-development programs, this one stems from SBU’s College of Business. Under the guiding hand of Gerrit Wolf, a management professor who earned his PhD in psychology from Cornell University, the center matches real-world business development to the sky-high science coming out of SBU’s research labs, while inviting Long Island companies of all sizes to streamline their products and operations – a key resource for the regional innovation economy. As Wolf sees it:

PSYCHED UP: My area of psychology is organizational industrial psychology, where we focus on making businesses more effective and efficient. In the old days, we tried to help larger corporations be more efficient. The new mission is: How do we get new organizations off the ground, and help them compete in the marketplace?

COME ONE, COME ALL: The Innovation Center focuses on three things. The first is the technology startup, which typically comes out of the university, created by faculty, graduate students or undergraduates. The second is family-owned businesses on Long Island, including manufacturing businesses, that want to be more effective and efficient in their use of technology. The third area is social innovation in the nonprofit area – solving the problem is the most important thing, and if you can make money doing it fine, but if you just break even that’s all right also.

A LITTLE OF EVERTHING: We’ve been busy. The technology innovation has always been there, because of the nature of the university, and we’ve worked with about a dozen firms over the last 15 years on their manufacturing processes. People are surprised when they hear about them. The usual mantra is there’s no more manufacturing on Long Island, but there is. The social-innovation aspect started small but is growing rapidly because of student interest – the millennials are very interested in doing good, and they’re happy to try and make money while they do.

LIKE MINDS: We have wonderful incubators like CEWIT and the LIHTI, and many of the startup businesses they house need business help. There’s a natural educational synergy in bringing them together with the College of Business, by either having (business) students interning with these startups or consulting for them as part of our coursework. Every semester in my tech-innovation class, about 10 startups from the incubators become clients for our students, because they need help in marketing, finance and business planning, and our MBA students need the practice. There’s a symbiotic relationship.

NAMES YOU KNOW: One course that’s required of our MBA students involves consulting projects for outside Long Island businesses, in the area of quality management, manufacturing, human resources management or market research. We’ve done multiple projects for Computer Associates, J. Kings Food Service, d’Addario … they’ve been wonderful clients, because they help our students learn how to be effective while the students help them by actually solving specific problems.

BIG IDEA: The Innovation Center actually founded the Stony Brook University Innovation Lab, which combines many of the university’s colleges and disciplines. I was invited to Yale four years ago for a marketing boot camp and it was held in their Innovation Lab, which was in their engineering building. This was a business school boot camp for marketing a particular product, and I learned a lot about that company, but the other takeaway was this wonderful Innovation Lab. The setting was very conducive for students to come in and tinker. I taught at Yale for 10 years and this wasn’t there then, so it signaled that Yale had changed over time. I said, “Wow, this is cool, we need this.”

UNIQUE SPIN: What’s unique about ours is it’s in the business school, not in the engineering school. You find these innovation labs typically in engineering schools or maybe in libraries. We have the only one I’m aware of based in a business school. This is critical to one of our main goals, which is to have a space where non-engineering students with creative ideas can come into the lab, join the network, talk to people, tinker and get some help developing their ideas.

IDENTITY CRISIS: My view is that the Long Island innovation economy is getting better and better. But I have this picture of it in my head, how it was really great back in the heyday of the aeronautics industry, going back to the 1920s when Roy Grumman founded Grumman Aeronautical Engineering. We went through the phasing-out of the aeronautics industry and have been going through the rough process of finding ourselves.

THE TIES THAT BIND: Firms that are not related to aeronautics are doing fine. And yes, we see plenty of manufacturing on Long Island. These are the kinds of firms that don’t leave the Island because they have family root here – they’re being carried on by second or third generations. They are not the kind of businesses that would move to Long Island, but they are here already and there are many of them and they contribute to the regional (economic) flavor.

THE NEED FOR SPEED: My biggest fear is that we won’t grow the economy fast enough to satisfy the businesses that we’re developing at the Innovation Center. We’ve been on a glide path. I think we have to move even faster to be effective in the global economy, and to compete with the other innovation hotspots around the country. I’m very hopeful about the future, but if I do have a fear it’s that we’re not moving fast enough.

Interview by Gregory Zeller