OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego and stakeholders throughout Oswego County will launch what they hope is a sustainable effort in April for the region to welcome and nurture innovation.
In an effort known as “Thrive,” the college’s Office of Business and Community Relations has created momentum for transforming the county — potentially beyond — into a “community incubator.”
Venture capitalist, entrepreneur and author Greg Horowitt will appear at a free public launch event at 7 p.m. April 9, in Sheldon Hall ballroom, according to OBCR Director Jeff Grimshaw. Stakeholders then will meet with Horowitt for two days to brainstorm and exchange ideas for developing a community blueprint over the next 12 months to give the potentially complex project detailed direction.
A year ago, Horowitt and his mentor, T2 Venture Capital partner Victor Hwang, published a book titled “Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley,” asserting that communities around the globe could encourage Silicon Valley-like enterprise by creating an ecosystem that encourages innovation. The partners have consulted in South Africa, Canada, the Middle East, Russia and rural northern Michigan.
“Their model for economic development is so different,” Grimshaw said. “They relate the traditional model of economic development to traditional agriculture: You plow nice straight rows and you plant only certain seeds in those fields. You pull the weeds out because you don’t want that stuff.”
In the rainforest analogy, “the environment creates different variations of plants or fauna, and some of those are the most unique and strongest,” Grimshaw said. “If you use that model with economic development, you create the environment for innovation. Economics, history, our physical environs, our government — that’s our environment that we could impact if we take the model of community incubators and engage all levels of the community: business, government, education, human services, nonprofits — everyone who makes us who we are in Central New York.”
A leading proponent of community incubators, Berkeley-based designer Emily Pilloton, appeared twice on campus in late February to talk and generate discussion about what it takes to foster a welcoming environment for innovation. Pilloton facilitated a town hall-style panel featuring educators from SUNY Oswego, BOCES and two school districts.
Enthusiasm has greeted Grimshaw, Assistant Director Tammy Elowsky and Chena Tucker, OBCR’s assistant project manager, in early meetings with educators, officials of local, state and national government, potential sponsors and others.
“There’s an opportunity to be had that’s been there all along, but things are aligning to make it very, very possible,” said Grimshaw.
Among the ingredients in the warm, incubating rainforest, Elowsky said, are “soft” attributes such as trust, optimism, risk-taking, sharing of ideas and knowledge, offering assets to the community in ways that don’t anticipate a return. Softer skills, including team building, problem-solving and customer service are important as well, she said.
“One of the things we’re taking a look at is creating positive change in the community that gets people excited about their city and county,” said Mark Proud, creative director of Step One Creative, a partner on the project. “A lot of people need that.”
Grimshaw said the college offers community-engaged faculty members, students working in classroom and service-learning projects in the area, and the support of President Deborah F. Stanley.
He pointed to members of Enactus, formerly Students in Free Enterprise, working with the county Health Department on a business plan. Students of John Belt in technology long have worked with community agencies on feasibility studies such as redesigned bus routes that reduce the number of Centro trips.
The Mentor Oswego project, coordinated by Patricia Waters, pairs college students with eighth-graders in the Oswego City School District to help decrease the high school dropout rate.
“What’s the recipe? In any kind of experimentation there will be successes and some things not so successful,” Grimshaw said. “I’ve always abided by the Thomas Edison rule that it took 400 tries to make a (commercially practical) light bulb. Well, there’s going to be some risk-taking in the community.”