Sibley Square, by sheer location, has no option but to be the focal point of downtown. Granted, the days of the site serving as a bustling department store, first as Sibley’s then as Kaufmann’s, or as the downtown educational hub for Monroe Community College, have fallen by the wayside. But as a $200 million renovation of the building continues onward, Sibley finds itself poised to be the center of Rochester’s technology ecosystem.
That is due, primarily, to NextCorps, Rochester’s tech incubator housed on the sixth floor of the building since February 2018. Formerly High Tech Rochester, NextCorps is currently serving about 50 startups. It’s a critical waypoint for the budding firms, offering access to resources, mentorship, office space and investment opportunities for businesses ranging from the optics driven Luminate NY accelerator to cancer connection app developer GRYT Health. At the helm of Nextcorps since 2009 is president and CEO James Senall.
Senall, first working as managing director of business development for Greater Rochester Enterprise (GRE) beginning in 2003, has become a staple of the Rochester business ecosystem, leading a crucial resource for startups throughout the region working to get off the ground.
“We’ve gone from being a $2.5 million organization to a $12 million organization. We have 19 employees ourselves,” Senall said. “What it means is, we’ve been able to add a lot of other programs and resources, whether it’s clean tech accelerators, to Luminate, to just regular incubation activities.”
It’s a big deal for Senall, who is adamant that Rochester is ripe for a soon-to-come techno-economy boom. Compared to the days when the proverbial big three of Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb dominated Rochester’s tech ecosystem, it’s much more fragmented today. Smaller companies still can do exceedingly well—take radio equipment manufacturer Mastodon Design, which sold for $225 million in February, cloud computing firm CloudCheckr, which secured $50 million in funding from Level Equity in 2017 and biopharmaceutical packaging company Aerosafe Global, which secured $31.5 million in investment from Peloton Equity LLC in late July.
It’s just a small handful of success stories that Senall sees as representative of Rochester’s growth in the tech sector.
“I think we’ve been planting seeds now, in the community, for the past five, six, seven years, that we’re really going to see start taking off and continue growing,” Senall said. “It’s going to become a lot more noticeable; a lot of it is under the radar today. People don’t really know these really cool technology companies that are growing, but they’re sort of 10, 15 person deals right now.”
A major part of that growth is putting Rochester on the map for companies looking to grow. That process is certainly happening—Datto has set up shop in The Metropolitan just a quick stroll down the road from Sibley, while LiveTiles, an Australian corporate and educational design firm, has set up their North American interactive user experience hub in High Falls, promising a total of 500 high-paying jobs by March 2023. Organizations like GRE and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce are integral for working with companies to make those moves possible, effectively working as regional cheerleaders by mapping out financial incentives and employment resources for businesses.
Matt Hurlbutt first met Senall during his stint at GRE.
Hurlbutt has been president and CEO of GRE since 2017, previously serving as director of business development and chief operating officer beginning in 2008.
“Jim’s a collaborator,” Hurlbutt said. “He’s really skilled in finding ways for companies to work together, to use their resources together to make things happen.”
As far as tech in Rochester goes, Hurlbutt sees Senall serving a pivotal role in fostering the next generation of tech growth, stating that fostering small businesses is crucial to creating a vibrant, diversified ecosystem.
“I’ve known Jim since his time at GRE, and he’s just easy to work with,” Hurlbutt said. “He understands what businesses need to be able to grow, and he knows how to guide them in securing those resources.”
Diversification is important for Senall, noting that many companies once held under the banner of Kodak or Xerox have broken off to become their own, successful standalone organizations. Rochester Precision Optics, formerly Kodak’s Optics Group, is currently working on a 20,000-square-foot expansion on John Street in Henrietta, with a price tag of $20.4 million, supported by a $1 million state grant and $2 million in performance-based Excelsior tax credits.
“It’s going to be pretty diversified, which is a good thing for the economy. Having lots of smaller companies is a good thing,” Senall said. “We’ll see a few of these earlier-stage companies pop and get bigger, but by bigger, I mean we’ll see companies that have hundreds of employees, but we’re not going to see a company with 30,000 employees. That just doesn’t exist that much anymore.”
Among the most promising for Senall are the companies that have popped out of the Luminate NY accelerator. Based at Nextcorps, the accelerator is the world’s largest accelerator focused specifically on optics startups. Originally funded by a $10 million, two-year grant from Empire State Development, the program received an additional $15 million in funding for three more years in February.
Sujatha Ramanujan serves as managing director of Luminate NY.
“(Jim’s) just a really good person to work with,” Ramanujan said. “He has a really good vision of what this town can be, he’s very positive, he’s extremely supportive, and he’ll tell you if something’s not right and how to fix it. It’s a very collaborative environment, a very encouraging environment.”
For Ramanujan, the key to any business, whether it be a startup, an established company or an incubator, is keeping an atmosphere where different minds from different backgrounds are working together, and Senall’s style of leadership has placed an emphasis on that.
“He’s hired people with very different personalities and different skill-sets, which is the sign of a good CEO,” Ramanujan said. “If you hire people that are exactly like you, you’re only going to get the same things done. He’s gone out and figured out what he does really well, and then hired people that are in a different space.”
At home with a household of four teenagers, Senall finds most of spare time attending different sporting events. He enjoys that, although the phrase “spare time” evokes a quick laugh.
“I love to golf, but I don’t get out nearly as much as I used to,” Senall said. “Most of the time I spend doing a lot of transportation.”
As the engine of Rochester’s tech economy continues to rumble, it’s still not entirely clear what the next decade has in store. But for Senall, he sees a lot of hope and promise, whether it be from the already booming companies choosing to call Rochester home or the fledgling startups still working to hit the ground running.
“We’re trying to help lead that charge in making a change, leading that economic growth, showing the community that there’s a lot of excitement and really interesting things here,” Senall said. “I think we have the right organization that’s community focused to get that message across. At the end of the day, people are only going to notice when some exciting things happen.”
[email protected]/585 775-9692
Title: President and CEO, NextCorps
Education: Bachelor’s degree, electrical engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1995; MBA, entrepreneurship, Simon Business School, University of Rochester, 1999
Family: Wife, Melissa; son, Tyler, 18; daughters Maddy, 17, Talia, 16, Alyssa, 13
Hobbies: Golf, family sporting events
Quote: “We’re trying to help lead that charge in making a change, leading that economic growth, showing the community that there’s a lot of excitement and really interesting things here.”