By Jack Mason
Small Times Correspondent

ALBANY, N.Y., May 7, 2002 — Chances are you’ve never heard of Tech Valley, the region stretching up and down the Hudson River and centered on New York’s state capital.

Chances are better that you’ll be hearing more about the area.

The Capital District around Albany is home to ambitious development plans, and a cluster of organizations with small tech aspirations:

Moreover, with strong state government support and cross-institutional collaboration among the 1,000-plus high-tech companies in the area, Tech Valley has every chance of becoming a lot more than a marketing mantra.

The second annual Summit in Tech Valley, held April 30 at the Albany Marriott, drew more than 350 business executives and technologists to discuss the challenges of building the region into the next high-tech hot zone.

The event also featured a business plan competition that earned a $100,000 prize for Starfire Systems Inc. of Watervliet, N.Y. A local venture with a small tech focus, Starfire makes high performance silicon carbide ceramics materials, and is a product of RPI’s tech-company incubator, one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1980.

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who has hosted similar gatherings in Silicon Valley and New York City’s Silicon Alley, moderated two panels with area executives and educators as well as CEOs of local companies. Participants included executives from nearby Intermagnetics General Corp. a superconducting materials maker, MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., Mechanical Technology Inc., and MTI’s sister company, stationary fuel cell systems maker Plug Power.

During a break between panels, Plug Power’s chief executive, Roger Saillant, showed off one of the company’s five-megawatt fuel cells running a model home set up under a tent in the parking lot.

Saillant explained that the fuel cell, which is about the size of two refrigerators, would benefit from advances in small tech. Saillant pointed out that the perfect membrane inside one of Plug Power’s PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells would be nanoscale –just large enough to let protons through, while forcing hydrogen atoms to give up their electrons to produce energy. He also noted that carbon nanotubes and other small tech approaches could help solve the challenge of storing hydrogen, the ideal fuel-cell fuel.

Over lunch, Gov. George Pataki presented an overview on New York State’s billion-dollar plan to build the Capital Region into a center for new energy and biotech companies, nanotechnology R&D and high-tech education. A statewide plan, Pataki’s Centers of Excellence program would support similar development in the Buffalo and Rochester areas.

Pataki noted that building Tech Valley was an economic imperative for New York “because we’re not just competing with others states, but with other countries as well.” He also cited the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the New York’s economy as another driver: 135,000 jobs lost, 377,000 workers displaced, 14 million square feet of office space destroyed and a loss of $7 billion in state revenues.

If Tech Valley is to take off, General Electric will likely play a pivotal role. One of the largest and most diverse corporate research centers in the world, its 1,700 scientists and engineers work on everything from advanced polymers to medical imaging devices such as the MRI machine, a GE invention. General Electric has said it will invest $100 million in the center, located just outside Albany.

Scott Donelly, senior vice president of GE Research, says that nanotechnology runs through and across a wide range of GE projects, from creating new composite materials to “solid-state” lighting of energy efficient, light-emitting materials built with small tech. Such full-spectrum LED lighting may replace the conventional incandescent bulb.

Donelly, an engineer, came over to GE Research two years ago from running the company’s medical systems division. As an example of how Tech Valley is becoming both cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional, he describes how GE researchers are working with scientists at the Albany Medical Center to create new contrast agents for MRI machines. Such designer molecules would be injected into patients to help doctors better “see” early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

William Acker, president of MTI MicroFuel Cells, said Tech Valley has the “right mix of resources, companies and institutions to make it a standout as a cultivator of new energy initiatives.” His own company, which is aiming to have portable, PDA-sized fuel cells on the market by 2004, is taking full advantage of those resources: it is developing the microfluidics system for its direct methanol fuel cells with University of Albany’s innovative new nanotech complex, Albany Nanotech.

A quick visit through Albany Nanotech with Michael Fancher, the nanocenter’s director for economic outreach, reveals a unique organizational blend of industry and university. IBM has committed $100 million, and the state $50 million more, to create a Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at the center.

In addition to 35,000 square feet of clean room facilities under construction, Albany Nanotech is a multifaceted complex structured and operated more like a company than an academic institution. It is also tackling a unusual mix of programs: incubating new nanotech companies, training nanotechnicians, educating young adults about small tech and working with companies to design and build machine tools and manufacturing equipment for nanotechnology.

The second Summit in Tech Valley was better attended and more introspective than last year’s, according to those who were at the inaugural event.

Whether Tech Valley will grow as fast as its ambitions is an open question. However, like nanotechnology itself, only time will tell. In 10 years, the region and the small tech field may both be booming.


Reprints of this article are available here.


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