With much fanfare, state officials this week announced the merger of the Infotonics Technology Center Inc. in Canandaigua with the Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics and Nanotechnology at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany.
The merged entity-named the Smart System Technology & Commercialization Center-will "advance and strengthen New York’s role as a leader in this innovation economy," Gov. David Paterson said. The state’s Centers of Excellence, he added, "have become national models for facilitating critical private-sector investment in emerging high-technology fields and for creating and expanding New Economy jobs."
Added Empire State Development chairman and CEO Dennis Mullen: "Through the deployment of new technologies into real products and manufacturing processes, this merger will drive economic development, thus creating value and new markets for private-sector companies."
OK, time out for a deep breath–and a bit of perspective. Similar statements were made nearly a decade ago when the Centers of Excellence initiative was launched. Since then, the Albany center has grown dramatically and attracted substantial private-sector investment.
Not so the Infotonics Technology Center, which was supposed to generate 5,000 jobs over 10 years. Corporate investment has fallen well short of expectations, the center’s strategic mission and leadership have changed a number of times, and operating deficits have been the norm.
As of 2008, the center had received some $130 million in funding, but private companies contributed barely one-third of that total. By contrast, the state had sunk $45 million into the facility and the federal government had put up $40 million more.
In addition, most of the center’s operational revenues were derived from government contracts.
Now, to support the launch of the merged centers, New York is investing up to $10 million more.
So is the latest move a mistake? No. The strategy-to focus on smart system and smart device innovation and manufacturing-makes sense. And surely it offers the best prospect of some return on the very big public investment in the Canandaigua facility.
But let’s not lose sight of the road traveled to arrive at this juncture.