Par excellence: The niche deserve their own COEs, too

Center stage: Business-incubation insider Phil Rugile would like to see "Mini Centers of Excellence" dedicated to niche industries.

It’s a mouthful, but stay with me: The New York State Division of Science, Technology & Innovation (thankfully simplified to NYSTAR) is housed within NYS’s Empire State Development Corp. (blessedly known as ESD).

This is important, because NYSTAR is the funding mechanism (to the tune of $55 million) for 13 major Centers of Excellence throughout the state – venerable institutions doing grand research and development, with impressive names like the Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics and Nanotechnology, the Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics and, my personal favorite, the Center of Excellence in Precision Responses to Bioterrorism and Disasters.

I don’t mean to sound flip – in fact, I’m rather envious when I see the work they’re producing and the money they attract. Bioterrorism isn’t my thing, but you can’t really have too many of these centers in one region.

So, what exactly is a “center of excellence?” Wikipedia says it’s “a team, a shared facility or an entity that provides leadership, best practices, research, support and/or training for a focus area.” That’s a fairly broad usage, and with only vague legal precedent, a “center of excellence” in one context may have completely different characteristics from another.

Let’s talk about a different context, then, an alternative approach: centers of excellence for niche business segments. A COE for Fashion Innovation. A COE for Food Tech. A COE for Digital Content Production, etc.

This is not unheard of. Take a look at Cornell University’s Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, for instance.

Phil Rugile: Excellence idea.

I recently had the pleasure of being invited to tour the campus of Five Towns College to see all the new equipment they’ve invested in to support growth in their rejuvenated broadcasting, music engineering and photography curriculums, and to support their newest addition, the Interactive Computer Graphics program developed by MindYolk Animations Studio founder and digital animation whiz Paul Lipsky.

Paul and I were discussing the idea of a COE outside of the sciences, and how that would enhance not only the learning experience for students, but the business region in general. He’s trying to create a new breed of creative professional, guiding students not only through the technologies but also through a career map that will lead them into what has become a highly competitive and multifaceted digital design field.

So, how does that connect to a center of excellence? Paul is using a project-based teaching model and in support of that has built an amazing Experience Lab. The courses all have project components built in this “real world” lab. As Paul describes it, “Our Experience Lab differs in that our focus is on the value of the creative mind for industry, while exploring the convergence of many different disciplines which, in turn, are already spawning new job opportunities within industry.

“Five Towns College recognizes that unless we move forward and explore what the future holds,” he adds, “our students’ skill sets will become outdated very quickly.”

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s hard for academia to keep up with the intense speed of change in almost every industry. Executives constantly focus on harnessing new concepts, new technologies and new techniques to create new products.

But a center of excellence supports this type of activity, creativity and, ultimately, commercially viable output. Five Towns is growing this concept in the digital arts and I suspect the outcome will be very exciting.

It would be nice to see more of these centers pop up in both universities and via industry funding. The startup costs are far less than anything in pharma or the biosciences, but still the centers would contribute to the regional startup ecosystem.

Mini-Centers of Excellence: a great way to aggregate talent around a specific industry. Just add water and watch amazing things grow.

Phil Rugile is the director of Launchpad Huntington and a consultant on corporate innovation and workforce-development programs. Reach him at