The push for business innovation

How Northern New York is learning from Silicon Valley to become a test market for the next generation of great ideas

Mark Cornett, NexID Biometrics general manager, left, and owner Michael Schuckers hold fingerprint scanners with co-owner Stephanie Schuckers in a biometrics lab at Clarkson University last month. NexID Biometrics develops and licenses detection software that enables fingerprint-scanning technologies to function with greater accuracy by avoiding spoof-related risks. Photo by Jason Hunter.

Few would argue that Northern New York is a far cry from Central California. What with below-zero degree days the norm during a New York January, but a 50-degree day being considered a California cold snap.

However, the two regions have more in common than one might think. Linked by a shared passion for innovative ideas and an overwhelming entrepreneurial spirit, the relationship between Silicon Valley and the north country is growing surprisingly closer. Will Northern New York ever be deemed the next Silicon Valley? Not likely anytime soon. Although, local entrepreneurs say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The advantages that the business environment throughout the north country offer cannot be found in the high-pressure, high-turnover world of California’s tech universe.

Mark J. Dzwonczyk is a bit of a pioneer in bringing big ideas and good business sense from California to St. Lawrence County. He continues to do so, actually, as he divides his time between both sides of the country. On the West Coast is his family home in California, where his wife, Meri-Beth, and children, Blaine and Luke, live. On the East Coast, an apartment in Brasher Falls in St. Lawrence County.

“I married into the Adirondacks,” Mr. Dzwonczyk said. “My wife’s family camped near Paul Smith’s and she said we got to move to California if she could spend summers in the Adirondacks. As I started to spend more and more free time at the local lake there, I didn’t have Internet access.”

That lack of access sparked something much bigger for Mr. Dzwonczyk. He partnered with Paul Smith’s College to bring network access across the St. Regis

Lakes chain and put himself on the map as the go-to guy to bring broadband Internet service to underserved areas across Upstate New York. He joined the board of directors for Nicholville Telephone, the parent company of Slic Network Solutions, and was asked about 18 months ago to join the firm as its chief executive to prepare the 110-year-old Nicholville Telephone for major growth.

Mr. Dzwonczyk has brought to Northern New York lessons that he has learned from years of building businesses from concept to fruition in Silicon Valley. He founded the voice over Internet protocol products and services company Sigpro from a garage in Los Altos, Calif., and was president and chief operating officer for Vello, an industry-leading concept that eliminated the need for dial-in numbers and PIN codes for conference calls. Vello was the building block for another company he founded, Callvine.

“When I build businesses, I look for a good market and ask if you can build something that is going to have meaning in the market,” he said. “[At Nicholville Telephone] I believe in what I’m doing. I have a passion for it. This is an important mission for economic development in the region.”

Mr. Dzwonczyk notes the importance of having access to broadband Internet, cable and phone for business development in rural Northern New York.

“It is as important as electricity was to business 75 years ago,” he said.

So what is it about Northern New York that is bringing entrepreneurs from across the country into the region to further their businesses?

Matthew E. Draper, deputy director for Clarkson University’s Shipley Center for Innovation, said he’s come across several factors that make building innovative businesses in the north country attractive.

[Innovation] is paramount, absolutely paramount.
If you’re not innovating, you’re falling behind.

— Mark J. Cornett,
Business consultant, general manager NexID

“I think a lot of times it’s market driven,” Mr. Draper said. “A lot of companies are dedicated to building an international focus and our proximity to Canada helps them.”

Mr. Draper also said there’s a built-in isolation that comes with doing business in the north country.

“Here, if you throw a prototype or idea against the wall and it fails, it’s not on the front page of TechCrunch,” Mr. Draper said. “They can fail here because they’re protected and it’s not in the spotlight. You can beta test something and see for how it works in the market.”

Mr. Draper said the Shipley Center is presently managing 106 projects and between it and Clarkson’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship, the university is home to 38 startup firms. Projects can be either student-run, faculty-run or a mix of both.

“The Shipley Center augments their educational experience,” he said. “Fifty-three percent of the projects here are student-based without faculty involvement.”

One of the goals the Shipley Center has when working with students is to provide them with the guidance and help necessary to build and grow a business, and determine what ideas are feasible.

A problem Mr. Draper sees occasionally among students is a desire to uproot the work they’ve done at Clarkson and move to Silicon Valley, where they have more access to like-minded individuals.

“We do see students who think they need to move to California to be successful, but in this day and age, geography doesn’t matter,” he said. “All you need is an Internet connection.”

Clarkson University is arguably one of the biggest contributors to building and attracting innovative businesses to St. Lawrence County. The university’s educational and business programming in places like the Shipley and Reh centers and its Peyton Hall small business incubator have brought dozens of businesses to Potsdam because of their unique offerings. Those offerings have not gone unnoticed.

“Tony Collins [president of Clarkson University] is the driver for St. Lawrence County innovation in economic development,” Mr. Dzwonczyk said. “You need someone like Tony to push it forward. Because of him there is the Reh Center and the Shipley Center and because of Tony, I’m here. He believes in the area.”

Clarkson also is a reason why Mark J. Cornett, a business consultant and general manager for NexID, a Peyton Hall incubator business, returned to Northern New York and now calls it home.

“I went to Clarkson as a student because my brother and cousin were there and my dad had said I was going to Clarkson,” Mr. Cornett said. “I met my future wife as I was on my way out of St. Lawrence County and we got married shortly after, lived in the Northwest and Boston and we decided to come back as a lifestyle change. We wanted to raise our family here. However, once I got here, I started to get to know people at local businesses and at Clarkson and I saw the need for [people with] management experience.”

[Editor's note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Business in print or subscribe.]

Kyle R. Hayes is associate magazine editor for NNY Business. Contact him at khayes@wdt.net or 661-2381.