Please forgive the length of this message, but a decade ends only once!
2019 marked the tenth year of UVC operations and it’s a good time to check on our progress, celebrate the wins and plan for the future. When we started UVC, we knew that the path to prosperity required a generation-long effort to bring together the vast resources distributed across Upstate NY. Our communities would rebound when they (once again) became home to fast-growing companies that were making things the world needed and valued.
Having lived and worked in such communities on both coasts, we knew that world changing companies were attracting our region’s most talented to leave Upstate. Our helping to foster the creation and growth of similarly attractive companies would give our region’s half a million college graduates the option to stay. It would also attract some of our most talented expats who would love to raise their families in places closer to family (not to mention highly affordable housing, congestion free commutes and access to quality schools, arts and recreation.
We also knew that entrepreneurs are most motivated and inspired by a community where there are others like them (i.e., optimistic about the future, open to “crazy” new ideas, willing to trust first and to pay it forward). In fact, scores of conversations with Upstate expat high-growth founders pointed to one clear differentiator between our region and the metropolitan startup hubs they now called home—the ease with which company founders like them could “find their tribe.” Building that “tribe” across Upstate NY is what the past 10 years have been about for UVC. And today, we are fortunate to have 17,000+ individuals who are connected to us by a shared desire to see more growth in Upstate NY.
While our geographic reach was ambitious, we also realized that the best way to stimulate this transformation was to avoid creating yet another economic development agency. Instead, our strategy has always been to share best practices with, and amplify the work of, like-minded individuals and organizations across the region so that we could all learn from each other and collaborate in helping entrepreneurs find the resources needed for success.
In some cases, we surprised people by simply aggregating information (e.g., our calendar showed that there were over 100 entrepreneurship events each month). In others, we started to capture the experiences of successful founders (Upstate Unleashed Conference, Upstate Founders Playbook) and quantified their goals/needs (Venture CEO Reports). None of this would have been possible without your participation and financial support as donors and sponsors.
As our communications reach and network has grown, like-minded ecosystem supporters across the region have become more connected and more active in adopting best practices. The number of people and programs has grown dramatically and to nearly every corner of our region. A few examples to consider:
– Ten years ago, the Syracuse Technology Garden was the only startup incubator that was in a downtown community (i.e., not siloed on a university campus). Today, most Upstate metro areas have similar facilities in downtowns.
– Ten years ago, the Seed Capital Fund in Syracuse was the only formally organized angel investor fund in Upstate NY. Angels everywhere else operated on their own or through loose networks that did not drive sufficient investment into local communities. Today, angel funds are active from Buffalo to Albany and the Hudson Valley to the North Country.
– Ten years ago, only a handful of colleges had programs and pathways supporting entrepreneurship as a career choice (Cornell, UofR, Syracuse were a few of the leaders). Today, the majority of four-year colleges have programs supporting student entrepreneurs.
– Ten years ago, most downtown metro areas Upstate were filled with empty office buildings and vacant store fronts. Today, much of the empty buildings are being re-purposed to house a new generation of college educated talent choosing to work in the city at a fast-growing company.
– Ten years ago, economic development conversations were dominated by the need for shovel ready sites where out of town employers could hire low-cost labor. Today, there is a concerted push from multiple NYS-funded programs to attract early stage companies from around the world to put down roots in the region.
And the results are beginning to show:
– Fast-growing companies valued at over a billion dollars each (also known as Unicorns) are visible in Albany (CommerceHub), Rochester (Datto) and Buffalo (ACV Auctions)
– Venture Capital investments are at an all-time high (Buffalo companies raised $250MM last year, Rochester and Syracuse companies raised $50-$100MM this year, with Albany and Ithaca not far behind)
– Significant exits are creating wealth for founders, early employees and local investors
– Most importantly, hundreds of job openings are emerging for college educated talent
All of this is not the work of some singular plan or a few heroic individuals, it is because you, and thousands like you, believed in the same vision and stepped up to make a difference. Thank you for investing your time and your money in Upstate founders; thank you for opening your networks to them; thank you for sharing your experiences and helping them in all the ways big and small that made a difference. Thanks to all of you, our regionwide community today is bigger, better connected, and stronger than it has ever been!
Yet, ten years is only half a generation and while the Upstate tech economy flywheel is in motion, more work is needed before our region can holds its own against the largest tech hubs. In fact, as the recent Brookings analysis shows, these hubs have sped forward even faster than the rest of the country over the past decade.
“Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego—accounted for more than 90% of the nation’s innovation-sector growth during the years 2005 to 2017. As such, they have increased their share of the nation’s total innovation employment from 17.6% to 22.8%. As a result, fully one-third of the nation’s innovation jobs now reside in just 16 counties, and more than half are concentrated in 41 counties.”
As we look to 2020, it is clear the next set of gaps can only be filled if we all lend a hand and build an even bigger tribe for future founders. To that end, UVC invites your support and engagement as we:
- Expand the UNY50 network to plug more expats into the opportunities emerging in our region (NYC first, then SV and Boston/DC). One of our biggest growth challenges is recruiting executives with the right high growth company experience. The best person to help you find the CFO your SaaS company needs is someone who has founded one or more such companies, worked in them at a senior level, invests in SaaS companies or specializes in recruiting SaaS execs. At this stage of our ecosystem evolution, those people are much more likely to be expats in a startup hub than your neighbor in Upstate NY. This effort will require investment in a back-end platform and more structured processes for channeling opportunities and connections.
- Encourage successful Upstate entrepreneurs to remain/become more engaged as investors and mentors for the next generation. It is vital for the health of our ecosystem that Upstate entrepreneurs remain active after their exits. The most valuable assets of startup hubs are entrepreneurs whose wealth enables them to redouble their contributions by starting new businesses, funding other entrepreneurs and actively helping others who are building the next great company. Much more so than money, it is personal relationships (and the willingness to use them to help other founders) that drives this tribe and continues to swell its ranks. We will also bring successful entrepreneurs from non-tech industries by identifying pathways for them to support the region’s emerging companies.
- Explore ways to partner with colleges and companies to fill the talent gap. We have scores of growing companies that need to hire thousands of college graduates. Yet, these employers and the thousands of college students are ships passing in the night. Our data shows that half of these companies are not recruiting on any campus and the rest are going to one or at most two colleges to recruit. On the flip side, top Upstate schools are more likely to arrange student visits to Silicon Valley or Boston than they are to introduce them to similar companies on Main Street. Creating easier paths for companies to find the talent they seek also offers an opportunity to make UVC sustainable by delivering on the core value of our network.
While we’re enthused about the prospects for growing our impact, the hard truth is that we can only get there with an expanded base of support from those who believe we are helping accelerate Upstate’s high growth economy.
As a 501c3 public charity, our first 10 years have been made possible largely through individual donations. For the next leg of our journey, we will have to extend our visibility to institutions such as regional and national corporations, foundations, family offices, forward thinking non-profit and educational partners. This will only happen through introductions from individuals who are already in our corner.
If you want to help us take Upstate to the next level, consider the following:
– Call, text or email Nasir or Martin to discuss any points raised in this letter
– Make a tax-deductible online contribution at uvc.org/donate
– Suggest institutions you think are aligned with UVC’s and (ideally) connect us to the right people there
Thank you for all of your support in beginning Upstate’s economic transformation.
Wishing you and all your loved ones a healthy and prosperous New Year!
Nasir, Martin and the UVC team