Frank DuRoss talks about his leadership role in Upstate New York’s startup community, and how the businesses he’s helped launch are driving the Mohawk Valley forward.
Frank DuRoss is a Utica, New York business legend with a knack for (profitable) reinvention. He has found success in fields as diverse as asbestos removal, commercial real estate, and media, among others. DuRoss is also the co-founder of the Utica Comets, an American Hockey League team that has helped revitalize Central New York. In 2015, DuRoss helped launch the thINCubator, a startup incubator in Utica.
Can you tell me about the thINCubator and what inspired you to start it?
Because of conversations that [president of Mohawk Valley Community College] Randy VanWagoner and I had with Martin Babinec, and a visit we made to Lorain County Community College outside of Cleveland, we saw what that community college was doing to build the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Cleveland area.
We felt that no one in Oneida, Herkimer or Madison counties were doing it [building an entrepreneurship ecosystem], so we decided we would attempt to start our own incubator/accelerator here in Utica to serve those counties.
What special challenges do Upstate New York startup founders face in trying to get their businesses up and running?
I think there’s a myth that there is no help for these startup founders—whether it’s financial, whether it’s mentoring, whether it’s just meeting people who believe in the same startup strategy. I think some entrepreneurs don’t believe that [startup] culture exists in Oneida, Herkimer and Madison counties. We think that’s a real impediment to startups, probably the number one impediment. We’re trying to overcome that.
What do you think the success of the Utica Comets has done for the local area?
The Utica area needed something positive, something that people could rally behind. I think there are a lot of naysayers, and I think this was a small step to show that this community can be successful, that they can support something that’s successful.
You have experience with many types of businesses—which industries do you think will help revitalize Utica’s economy?
There’s no doubt that the high-tech industry has the best paying jobs—the economic impact of a high-tech startup is much greater than a service industry type of startup. I think there is always going to be a need for the service industry—we need tourism to flourish in our community, there’s assets that we have that we need to build upon—but I think the high-tech industry is going to give us the greatest bang for our buck.
What new projects are on your horizon for 2017?
We’re working to expand what we’re doing at the thINCubator. We are researching with various partners the possibility of doing a commercial kitchen/AgTech incubator—because of the big agricultural industry here in Oneida and Herkimer counties. We’ve had a lot of individuals come to us who have wanted to start some type of food business and we want to be able to help those individuals, as well as those in the high-tech field.
We’re also working with the refugee community here to help them start businesses—more of artisan type businesses— we believe that they are a huge sector of the population that’s underserved and we want to help them. We’ve had some early successes—small, but they are successes, so we think that’s a great thing.
And we received a federal grant to work with Tech Transfer at the research lab at the Griffiss Institute—we are working with them to see if we can help turn patents that have expired into viable startup businesses.
How has UVC been able to help you?
They’ve been able to help us with mentorship—and we’ve received direction from Martin, Nasir, and others. They’ve been very willing to work with us in terms of when we’ve had meet-ups and other events.
The [UVC] community calendar that we are a part of lays out exactly what’s going on throughout the year— so people know were they may want to go to start their business and meet people. So UVC has helped us. It’s brought attention to the startup community here in Oneida and Herkimer counties.
Frank DuRoss is a member of the UNY50 Leadership Network, committed to helping founders create the next great companies in Upstate NY. He was a 2016 Venture Ecosystem award winner in the Community Catalyst category.