With Tech Garden, Syracuse seeds regional growth

A group of workers at a technology startup work on their laptops

After several decades working at large companies on the West Coast, Amy and Joe Casper returned home to Syracuse, laying the groundwork for the next phase of their careers: launching a start-up focused on specialized LED lighting. At The Tech Garden, the region’s growing business incubator, the Caspers refined their product, identified a specialized market in professional sports arena lighting, and grew from three employees to 25.

Since Ephesus Lighting moved out of the incubator, it has doubled its employment. Today the company sells to the NCAA and major league teams, with the 2015 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks played under Ephesus lights.

The Caspers’ story shows the payoff emerging from the region’s now decade-long bet that investing in a business incubator and other entrepreneurship supports can help revitalize an older industrial region.

Its parentage is somewhat unusual: It is sponsored by the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, the region’s lead economic development organization. And when it was launched in 2005, it was the first technology incubator in upstate New York based outside of a university. But a strong alignment with CenterState CEO’s economic development strategy has allowed Tech Garden’s leaders to support entrepreneurs by crafting programs tailored to local market conditions and economic development opportunities.

Like many incubators, Tech Garden offers a menu of programs and resources, including grants and start-up investments, coaching and mentorship, and specialized services, such as software development and management expertise. It’s also housed in a contemporary, tech-friendly center in the heart of downtown Syracuse.

But reflecting its mission, Tech Garden is responsive to the region’s unique challenges after decades of factory closings.  As its focus on entrepreneurship has gained momentum, the region has struggled to retain successful new firms, leading many Tech Garden programs to create incentives for companies to stay in the region. The Germinator, a business competition announced earlier this year, will require winning companies to locate at Tech Garden for the two-year program, followed by an additional two-year commitment to stay in the region.

“We’re intentionally baking an economic development mission into the structure of incubation programs,” said Seth Mulligan, vice president for innovation services at CenterState CEO, who oversees the program.

Other initiatives are also underway to bolster the entrepreneurial ecosystem—a key recommendation of a regional business plan developed with Brookings, which found the region trailing larger metropolitan areas on measures of venture capital flow per capita and business formation.

Addressing that recommendation, Armory Square Ventures, a new regional seed fund, launched last year to create greater access to venture capital. The fund has already raised more than $15 million and announced its first two investments toward building a portfolio of 15 to 20 companies over the next three years.

Others include the new Genius NY, a two-year, $3.4 million business competition that will specifically target firms in the “data-to-decisions” cluster identified in the business plan. Another initiative piloted over the last year combines the region’s entrepreneurship agenda and focus on inner-city opportunity by helping individuals in underserved communities launch new business ventures.

In assembling a portfolio of initiatives, Mulligan emphasized the importance of listening to the local entrepreneurial community and tailoring efforts to their unique needs.  “If you think of them as your customer and integrate their voice into your planning model, you’ll be much more successful,” he said.

The initiative featured here is related to work supported by the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. CenterState CEO also provided support for Brookings’ work in the region. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the scholar.