This is Global Entrepreneurship Week, which seems particularly appropriate given what has been happening the last few days at Luminate NY in Rochester.
Now in its second year, Luminate NY is the world’s largest startup accelerator for optics, photonics and imaging companies. The accelerator received 70 applications earlier this year for its 2019 cohort; 30 percent of those companies reside in other countries, and many more reside in major technology hubs around the United States.
The original 70 applicants were trimmed to the 22 most promising ones, and the founders and executives of those 22 companies arrived in Rochester this week for the “Lightning Round” contest that determines if they become one of the 10 companies to make it into the six-month accelerator program.
Given that joining the accelerator program entails a residency requirement whereby the company leaders will spend significant time in Rochester working out of the Luminate offices and making business connections with potential partner companies in our region, the decision to apply to Luminate involves a much larger investment from these companies than merely travelling here for a few days.
Among the 22 that made the cut to be in Rochester this week are companies from Israel, India, New Zealand, Portugal and Toronto. It is notable that Israel and Toronto are both known globally as excellent places to build startups. Further, there were companies here from U.S. cities that are superb startup hubs, including Boston, San Francisco, the Research Triangle (North Carolina) and Denver. Companies from New York City and Northern Virginia, which are cities that recently each won the competition to become Amazon’s second headquarters, were also present.
I had a unique vantage point to this week’s competition because I am a board member of one of the 22 companies and went through the process together with them. I also got to know people from other companies. Perhaps the most remarkable element of those interactions was that no one I encountered from other countries or cities found it at all remarkable or surprising that the world’s largest OPI accelerator would be in Rochester. Many of the people I spoke to were well aware of Rochester’s prowess as a commercial and academic OPI center before this competition, and some had previously either visited the area or done business with Rochester companies.
The positive impressions expressed by other participants were not limited to Rochester’s OPI assets. I heard people commending everything from our universities and the talented graduates they create to the active and supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem they were getting to know and the accelerator facilities housed at the Sibley building in downtown Rochester. One team was even excited when snow showed up midweek. Members took photos since they had never seen snow in person before.
Overall, the experience left me with two distinct notions. First – and this was by no means the first time I had felt this – Rochester is often appreciated more by non-Rochesterians who are seeing it with fresh eyes. This is not a surprise to many of us who have lived in other places. Rochester is not perfect, but no place is. Moreover, on measures like quality of life, quality of people, skilled workforce and affordability, we do undeniably well.
Second, with the launch of Luminate, our region took a big step forward in effectively leveraging our history and presenting us as an OPI center to further grow our reputation, and likely our economy. Credit for this initial success should be given to Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of Luminate, NextCorps (which administers Luminate), and New York for funding it.
On Nov. 14, the teams presented public pitches about their companies at the Dryden Theatre, after which the 10 winners were announced. These included Augmentiqs (Israel), Circle Optics (New York City), Kura Tech (San Francisco), Lumedica Vision (Durham, N.C.), Mango teQ (New Zealand) and Neurescence (Toronto). The teams each will get a $100,000 investment from Luminate, and the opportunity to compete for up to $1 million more in investment at the end of the program.
At the end of the night, some of the winners were already discussing their plans on moving to, or spending considerable time, in Rochester. Good luck to these companies in building the next generation of Rochester employers.