By: Sandra Parker | Democrat & Chronicle
Building a 21st-century Rochester depends on the ability to attract millennials. As the first generation of “digital natives,” they’re seen as key to rebranding the area as a technological powerhouse on the rise.
Nobody is saying we’ll ever rival Silicon Valley. But Silicon satellites have emerged: Portland is known as the Silicon Forest; Los Angeles claims the moniker Silicon Beach, while New York City has its Silicon Alley. And other cities are vying to reach Silicon stature.
So why not Rochester? Silicon Falls, perhaps?
Business leaders say that Rochester is a good fit for millennials, who are not interested in the old employment model of signing on with a big company and remaining there for decades. Many are job-hoppers who, if they can’t find the right job, will simply create it.
Rochester’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem” is booming, says Rich Notargiacomo, interim director of RIT’s Venture Creations business incubator. He notes that RIT’s business incubator has spun off 31 companies, of which 22 remain in Monroe County.
UR and RIT both have incubators to help students and others who want to commercialize their original ideas. Local investment is crucial because when businesses accept outside investment, they’re often required to move to the investor’s city, says Richard DeMartino, director of RIT’s Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Although the heyday of Rochester’s technology giants is over, our area is still known for its pool of talented engineers. The number of patents in the county has doubled to around 1,200 per year, of which Kodak’s share has dropped from 80 percent to 10 percent, says Duncan T. Moore, vice provost of entrepreneurship and professor of optical engineering at UR.
Many in the city hope the new Photonics Manufacturing Institute, along with the surge of technological startups, is repositioning Rochester to be more enticing for millennials.
Local business organizations do not track startup companies by owners’ ages, but millennials are definitely part of the trend, says Jim Senall, president of High Tech Rochester, a business incubator. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there’s a wave of millennials returning and starting businesses.
National business-tracking organizations rate Rochester as a rising city for tech jobs and for medical research. We often show up on the top-50 list for a number of medical specialties.
Our region does boast a large pool of talent, says George Daddis, CEO of Omni-Id Cayman, a company specializing in industrial RFID, a high-tech data transfer technology. But “if we don’t get to a critical mass on the startups quickly enough, some of those people won’t be here anymore. We have to rev the engine quickly.”
Daddis, a Cornell graduate who also worked at Kodak and Xerox, says he mines the RIT internship program for employees but thinks more talent could be retained through a closer connection between UR, RIT and the community.
“We’d love to get the students integrated into the community so they develop a sense of home,” he says.
Melanie Shapiro, 30, graduated from RIT and is now working on her second tech startup in Rochester after selling her first one. She’s originally from Livonia and now lives in New York City, but she set up her new company, CryptoLabs, in 2014 here in Rochester. The company has developed the Case Wallet to secure digital bitcoins — the kind of new-economy tech invention that would seem more likely to come out of Silicon Valley, not Silicon Falls.
But Shapiro says there’s a reason her company is here. “The environment is so much more conducive to getting work done and starting from the ground up. RIT engineers are definitely excellent and come out of school with experience through the co-op program.”
Shapiro has lived in Silicon Valley. “It’s definitely a different mentality in Rochester,” she says. “There is a loyalty here.”
Nate Bank, co-president of Rochester Young Professionals, returned after living in Florida, Mexico, Manhattan and Buffalo. A Brighton native and corporate counsel for Kodak Alaris, Bank says he knows of others who would like to return if the right job opportunity arose.
Like any generation in its 20s and 30s, millennials are optimistic. But unlike any other generation, millennials have grown up in a globalized world where immediate results are available at the touch of a tiny image on a smartphone. Millennials are also branded as tech-savvy, collaborative, straightforward, impatient, imbued with a sense of entitlement and passionate about enacting social change. (They also don’t like being called “millennials,” but what are you going to do?)
“Our generation wants more satisfaction out of a job,” says Bank. “We want to create a positive impact on the community and the world.”
Bank says that “10 years ago, (change) was a lot of wishful thinking — there was optimism but not much investment.” Now, “the common perception among our members is that Rochester is doing better.”
Sandra Parker is a former writer for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and Santa Monica Outlook who now lives in Pittsford.
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Originally published at www.democratandchronicle.com on March 11, 2016.