Debrief: Accelerating with Peter Donnelly

Peter Donnelly: Long Island's best economic hopes are in collaboration, not competition, with NYC.

Not to be confused with the Accelerate Long Island Seed Fund is the Accelerate New York Seed Fund, an all-new endowment operating under the auspices of nonprofit regional-commercialization booster Accelerate Long Island. Boasting a $6 million war chest ($3 million from Albany and $3 million from private investors, primarily Topspin Partners of Syosset), the new fund takes a wider view, injecting capital into early-stage innovators across Downstate New York. Leading the way is new Accelerate Long Island Executive Director Peter Donnelly, who’s also wrapping up his fourth year as director of Stony Brook University’s Office of Technology Licensing and Industry Relations. Donnelly, former deputy director of tech development at Argonne National Laboratory, has some highly educated ideas about how the new fund will operate – starting with the notion that Long Island cannot thrive in a commercialization vacuum. His view:

Come together: The best option (for the new fund) was to pursue the downstate option. Accelerate Long Island’s first proposal to the state was for Long Island, but when CUNY dropped out we made the revised proposal to manage all of the downstate money. That was necessary; the state wants to direct these funds to downstate and not just to Long Island. That’s a reasonable expectation from the state’s perspective. And to maximize Long Island’s potential, I think it’s important for us to integrate with the city and with the Mid-Hudson Valley.

If we don’t hang together…: We need to understand where we are competing with New York City and the research institutions in New York City, and just as importantly, where we can be more collaborative. And in commercialization, we can be more collaborative, in order to realize our larger potential. I think it’s fair to say both Long Island and the city are underperforming in the commercialization of our research. It is to our advantage to collaborate and not step all over each other. Long Island is stronger approaching the city as an asset.

Big picture: The larger competitive system we exist in is national and international. We’re competing with the Greater Boston area and the Greater San Francisco area. Of course, New York City can say it’s bigger and more competitive than Long Island, but it is also true that we have better potential to become a major international life-science cluster, or a cluster in another tech-industry focus area, if we are acting collaboratively rather than competitively.

Still an Islander: [Accelerate] still wants somebody who can step in and be a strong advocate for Long Island and what Long Island has to offer, which I strongly believe is a great deal. We have a lot of world-class research going on here that’s not being done anywhere in the world. Now we have to draw it out into the commercial world and learn how to be more competitive. We have to push to compete but not be so parochial – get out there and compete in the broader world.

Slow and steady: It’s not unusual for the raising of money for a fund like this to take a while. And in this case, there was an extended process. There was a delay in that the first round of the competitive process included CUNY, which subsequently withdrew, so Empire State Development issued a revised call for proposals to cover the CUNY portion. Accelerate made a second proposal to manage all of the downstate money, and we solicited and received CUNY’s support for that, which everyone was pleased with. The state took its time and thoroughly evaluated all proposals before selecting Accelerate.

$6 million – for starters: We would absolutely love to raise more. I think some of that has to do with how well we continue the performance of the first fund, and certainly how well we invest the second fund. And then, how well we do in engaging major investors and getting them to continue to put money to work in Downstate New York. Preliminarily, I’m very confident we’ll be able to do that.

Sold on SBU: I came to Long Island (from Argonne National Laboratory) very impressed with what Stony Brook had done in terms of research, but not sure if it had all the assets required to become a global cluster. After four years working not just with Stony Brook but with other institutions on Long Island, and now seeing a change with what New York City is willing to do in terms of commercialization collaboration, I see real opportunity to become a life-sciences cluster, and that’s really motivating.

Science for the people: I would say the basic research being done (at both Argonne and Brookhaven National Laboratory) is incredible. You need something like the U.S. government or a consortium of governments to build these facilities and permit the work they do. What I think both laboratories can and should do better is to integrate into their larger ecosystems and look downstream, at how the United States taxpayer can benefit more tangibly from the work they do. The basic research is scientifically important but not necessarily connected to something that’s going to benefit you and me next year. Both can do a better job of moving their work into benefits for taxpayers sooner rather than later. The basic research will sometimes benefit us 20 or 30 years from now, but we can do better at realizing benefits sooner.

Presidential pardon: President Trump has proposed substantial reductions in funding for basic research, and that will certainly affect all of the downstate research institutions. I’m going to stay optimistic that it doesn’t happen. I hope President Trump will change his mind about the importance of research and its significance to our long-term economic success. It’s a very long-term investment, but I think President Trump understands investments and I think he has recently shown he is open to other voices demonstrating openness.

Ten-year mission: It’s important that we’re successful in getting a third fund started under Accelerate Long Island. Becoming a cluster in one of the major industrial areas – life sciences, for example, where we already have a lot of traction – takes a long time. Long Island is not going to become a major life-sciences cluster in three years or five years. This is a 10-year horizon. We need to sustain our momentum and build on the success we’re seeing. If we can do that, it’s very thinkable that we can become a major life-science cluster. And along the way, we may also be able to gain traction in areas like materials science, or clean energy, or technology.

Interview by Gregory Zeller

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