The Debrief: Dan Polner, go-to incubator guy

As incubator advocate – yes, that’s the actual title – in Stony Brook University’s vast business-development ecosystem, Dan Polner is a busy man. A 20-year finance professional (Berenson & Co. director, Equitable Capital Management veep, among other positions) with an MBA from the University of Chicago, he reports directly to Jeffrey Saelens, SBU’s new interim director of incubators, and keeps in frequent contact with startups in (excessive acronym alert) CEWIT, CEBIP, LIHTI and AERTC, as well as SBU’s Incubator at Calverton and Center for Biotechnology. His mission: assist early-stage companies in the execution of their strategic plans. His view of Long Island’s innovation economy:

FAMILIAR TURF: I became incubator advocate in January, but I was actually hired by the university almost three years ago, as a business advisor for the state’s Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook. I was hired to facilitate the regional New York Rising grant-assistance program following Hurricane Sandy. Basically, I facilitated the awarding of close to $2 million in grant assistance to small businesses on Long Island that were affected by the storm.

NEW CHALLENGES: Dr. Saelens saw a need for someone to manage the overall programmatic aspects of our incubator system. I’m here to facilitate the needs of incubator clients. I’m not out there forcing myself on these companies, but when a company has a question or needs assistance or needs a contact outside the university community, and they don’t have the time or resources necessary to research the right answer, I’m here. You can almost call me an incubator ombudsman.

RARE ADVANTAGE: I’m a former investment banker with 20-plus years in the financial industry. I don’t think there are many incubator programs out there that have the benefit of someone who possesses a technical background (bachelor’s degrees in systems engineering and accounting from the University of Pennsylvania) and so much experience dealing with potential investors. I can be a sounding board, play devil’s advocate, provide feedback from a business perspective, etc., without exposing our clients to the scrutiny of the outside world until they’re ready.

NEVER A DULL MOMENT: Through the five incubator buildings and the other business-development programs, there’s a lot going on. We also have an Incubator Without Walls program, which allows companies that are not physically here to take advantage of our faculty and graduate students and facilities. These are basically companies that have a desire to facilitate with the university but aren’t quite there. They’re just testing the waters.

YOU HAVE TO MEAN IT: We don’t want companies just name-dropping Stony Brook. They really have to have a reason, beyond marketing, to be affiliated with the university. But if they pass the smell test, Incubator Without Walls companies can access those graduate students and the university’s engineering expertise and other resources, without taking physical space. It’s something a lot of regional technology companies aren’t even aware of.

BEST OFFENSE: I’d like to be more focused on instituting best practices as a way of continually improving our incubator programs. That involves interacting with other incubators in other locations, and getting a sense of what they’re doing and what’s working for them, and what isn’t. Then we can look into how we can implement the best practices here.

LIKE MINDS: I tell Dr. Saelens all the time he’s the best boss I’ve ever had, and that’s including 20-plus years throughout the financial services industry. We think alike. He takes a pragmatic approach to his position and I take a similar approach to mine. We both like to get things done.

FEAR NOT: I don’t really have any fears about the Long Island innovation economy. There’s a tremendous amount of talent on Long Island. The institutions of higher learning and the research and technology centers that are here are on par with any technology hub in the country, as far as I’m concerned.

GET REAL: The truth is, it’s a globally competitive world out there. Resources can be scarce. Maybe one in 20 tech startups will actually succeed in achieving its long-term goals. There are a lot of risks in starting a technology venture – if there wasn’t, everyone would do it.

OPTIMISTIC VIEW: So you have to expect failure in an incubator program – but you do it and hope you provide the support system needed for hardworking individuals to achieve those successes. The talent is here on Long Island. Whether we can provide the structure that talent needs to achieve those positive results, that’s the challenge.

Interview by Gregory Zeller