RIT to host virtual commencement

Rochester Institute of Technology will help its class of 2020 celebrate with a virtual conferral of degrees.

Although not intended to replace the traditional commencement, the May 8 virtual event will allow the college to recognize graduates and celebrate their achievements, school officials said Thursday. RIT  announced in mid-March that it would cancel its previously planned 2020 commencement ceremonies, but the school remains committed to an on-campus ceremony as soon as it is deemed safe to host one.

Graduating students, families and friends are encouraged to view the celebration at 5 p.m. May 8 at rit.edu/classof2020. The event will begin with congratulatory messages from faculty and staff, as well as remarks from Student Government President Anika Aftab.

The celebration will be made available on the website after the event for those who cannot watch it that day, officials said.

Students can order caps, gowns and tassels free from RIT’s vendor, Oak Hall.

David Munson Jr.
David Munson Jr.

“We are so proud of this graduating class, which has had to adapt to so many changes in the last six weeks,” said RIT President David Munson in a statement. “We look forward to marking this milestone on May 8 and celebrating in person in the months ahead.”

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RIT takes out dormitory bonds for new construction, lower interest on its debt

Rochester Institute of Technology has taken out $346.2 million in bonds through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York in anticipation of major building and renovation projects on campus.

Nearly half the funds will go toward new construction and renovations, while the rest would refinance a bank loan and other bonds taken out when interest rates were higher.

“We are pleased to support our higher education partners through the issuance of these bonds,” said Reuben R. McDaniel III, acting president and CEO of the dormitory authority. “With these low-cost bonds, the Rochester Institute of Technology has achieved a cost-effective way to ensure its students are provided with up-to-date facilities where they can collaborate and innovate, setting them up for success.”

More construction at RIT will take place with bonding it just sought.
More construction at RIT will take place with bonding it just sought.

Chief among the new projects would be what’s being called the Innovation Maker and Learning Complex, connecting the Wallace Library and the Student Alumni Union. It would be the largest building project since the university opened the Henrietta campus 51 years ago. The complex, scheduled to open in 2022, would include 150,000 square feet, and create a meeting space for arts and technology.

The building is expected to cost more than $100 million to construct and has already received $17.5 million from entrepreneur and RIT grad Austin McChord as part of his $50 million donation in 2017. Additional fundraising will be required for the building projects, the university noted.

Other new structures include a musical theater building and athletic stadium complex.

University officials said the bonding was obtained now to take advantage of low interest rates.

RIT President David Munson said, “This new bond issue allows refinancing that will produce millions in savings due to near historic low interest rates, while also giving us capital to begin many exciting, transformative projects that will enhance the campus and provide construction jobs in the region.”

The bonding will also support renovation of student housing, including improved accessibility and new sustainability measures.

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At MAGIC Center, David Long balances student opportunities with professional work

A year ago this month, David L. Long was standing at a podium showing off Rochester Institute of Technology’s newest toy – MAGIC Spell Studios, a state-of-the-art studio for creating video games, movies and all kinds of media.

David Long
David Long

It would have been hard for Long, as a student of chemical engineering in Texas in the 1990s, to imagine that he’d be the director of a film science center and studio at a university in New York 20 years later.

It might have even been hard back then to imagine the need for such a center.  MAGIC Center, the building, houses the film-and-animation and game-design departments. It also houses a business, known as MAGIC Spell Studios, that makes available studio facilities to entrepreneurs who might, in turn, provide learning and job opportunities for students.

“The facility is literally what Rochester needed as one of the tools of getting on the map,” said filmmaker Aaron Gordon, principal of Optic Sky Productions. Rochesterians will be familiar with his work, if not him, because he created the Wegmans 2Go advertisements that are running on television and social media channels right now. He used the studios at the MAGIC Center to create Cleopatra’s Nile, Mona Lisa’s Italy and the surface of the moon.

“Aaron turned 7,000 square feet in our sound stage into 7,000 square feet of the moon. They built a lunar lander. They worked with a prop company that has a full, functioning space suit,” Long said. And what they didn’t do? Farm that stuff out to New York or Los Angeles.

The MAGIC facilities woo professionals, but they are also available for students to use before the pros, and with the pros.

“In arts,” Long said, “there aren’t these giant formal co-op programs in big legacy programs. If you want experience in these disciplines, you’ve actually got to get on a set. You’ve got to get into post-production as an apprentice. You’ve got to go and work on real freelance projects.”

Gordon said Long is the perfect person to head this center, because of his technical knowledge, and understanding of the importance of collaboration in emerging media fields, and his ability to predict emerging job trends.

Long, 44, has also achieved some national status in the industry. He was named a fellow of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers in 2017.

The two met when Gordon, a 2013 graduate of RIT, was getting his film degree. Schooled in the artistic side of filmmaking, he turned to Long and his motion picture engineering students to help with the technical aspects of his films.

The one aspect of the MAGIC director’s job that Long might have imagined 20 years ago was the academic setting. Growing up in Oklahoma, he had witnessed his grandfather moving back and forth between jobs in the food industry and teaching and researching food science at universities.

“I really liked taking advantage of both. I knew my career would end in academia,” Long said recently in his office on the second floor of the MAGIC Center. MAGIC, by the way, stands for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity.

Long holds up his academic and career path, which included working at Eastman Kodak Co. for a decade, as an example for students to consider. Despite the career-oriented degrees many get at schools like RIT, Long says students should understand that what they’re training for might not be what they end up doing for a career eventually, and they shouldn’t stress about that.

“At the end of the four years of undergraduate, you’re not done and you’ve not defined your career trajectory explicitly,” Long said.

He admits to not being particularly passionate about his major, chemical engineering, but his bachelor’s degree in that subject helped him find his first job where he could start to define his passion. Also, “It gave me the core skills that weren’t so engineering-specific,” such as problem-solving, he said.

For nine of the 10 years Long was at Kodak, his title was imaging scientist, and he became an expert in motion picture science. Gordon credits Long with the science behind the film stock that defined filmmaking for seven years in the 2000s.

While at Kodak, Long used his educational benefits to obtain a master’s degree at the University of Rochester in materials science. Then, he said, “in 2007, this wonderfully serendipitous thing happened:” RIT posted a job as chairman of the motion picture sciences. “Too many good things were falling in my lap at the same time,” Long said.

The opportunity allowed him to do the kind of research he hadn’t been able to undertake at Kodak, and he could advance in his field without having to relocate his family, which then included two tiny children. It even shortened his commute. There was just one thing Long had to negotiate – the latitude to embark on a doctorate in color science. He completed the degree at RIT in 2015, three years before he was appointed head of the new MAGIC center.

At a technical institute cum research university famous for its career preparation programs, Long stands out a bit by telling students to think more broadly than the degree program they enter at RIT.

“The reputation of RIT as a career school is fantastic to attract attention and attract applicants,” Long said. “I think we’ve done a better and better job, especially with President (David) Munson lately, of communicating once we’ve got you here — let’s tell you what it’s really about. It’s about becoming a better world citizen, it’s about exploring outside your major.”

Long’s an even odder duck compared to advisers in other film programs, some of which advise skipping an academic degree altogether to get training that can result in an immediate job in the industry. But he has his eye on the longer game, involving creating a local film industry thriving in Rochester and not just feeding into the coastal scenes.

“We of course want a lot of high fliers to go to the coasts, to elevate our reputation. But we want a healthy fraction of our community to stick around here and to continue to elevate the media discipline in this part of the country,” he said.  “We’ve got the sound stage, post-production, a movie theater, all these things that are critical to a successful media production ecosystem in a market.”

Teams of students who want to create media — perhaps a film, perhaps a game — are able to gain real world experience and business experience at RIT.

“A film team or a game team wants to make a media experience…..That is the seed for the idea for a business. These students are actually founding their own studio or their own creative services company,” Long said. “These students don’t need to flee to the coasts to operate their business. We can show them they can be successful here.”

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David Long

Title: Director of MAGIC Center and MAGIC Spell Studios, Rochester Institute of Technology

Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, University of Texas, Austin, 1997; master’s degree in materials science, University of Rochester, 2001; Ph.D. in color science, RIT, 2015

Age: 44

Residence: Victor

Family: Wife, Karen; daughter Morgan, 15; and son Garrett, 12

Activities: photography, woodworking, shepherding his kids to numerous youth activities

Quote: “At the end of the four years of undergraduate, you’re not done and you’ve not defined your career trajectory explicitly.”




Technology jobs need the humanities, panelists say

Though employers, educators and even parents have fixated on STEM disciplines to prepare young people for jobs in an increasingly technological society, a recently convened expert panel said it’s important to remember the humanities.

Amanda Roth
Amanda Roth

And above all, they said, young people should be encouraged to do what they’re passionate about.

The panel on “Why STEM Needs the Arts & Humanities” was assembled by the Institute for Humanities at Monroe Community College earlier this month, and included:

Michael Jacobs, dean of humanities and social sciences at MCC and director of the institute, said the rise in global technologies has been accompanied by a precipitous drop in interest in majors in the humanities, which include English, modern languages, history, social sciences, philosophy, anthropology and others.

“This is a false dichotomy and stunts our growth as human beings,” Jacobs said.  STEM education needs people educated in what it means to be human,” he said.

Education in the humanities, Roth said, nevertheless may lead to a job in the STEM arena.  Those majors specialize in skills that STEM jobs need, she suggested, including critical thinking, reading comprehension, logical analysis, argumentation, persuasive communication, ethics and values, and global and multicultural awareness.

For instance, Nissan used anthropological studies of human behavior to improve its driverless cars, she said.

All three panelists provided evidence, whether personal or general, that people who succeed in technology fields often bring with them varied experience outside of science, technology, engineering and math.

Eric Berridge
Eric Berridge

Berridge, for example, has spent his entire career working in computer software but majored in English and rhetoric. He told a story, reprised from a TED Talk he gave in 2018 about how he and his Bluewolf partners sent in a bartender, who majored in philosophy but dropped out of college, to negotiate with an unhappy client. The bartender used his good listening skills and analytical mind to figure out what the client really needed instead of focusing on the technical issues that had stumped the programmers.

And though Munson is an electrical engineer by training, he described his brief and joyful career as theater parent that led to his starring as the Tin Man in a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Munson has, since arriving at RIT, made efforts to swing the university toward more music and performing arts as a way to engage and expand upon the multiple talents of science-minded students.

“My advice is always take a degree in what you’re passionate about,” Munson said. But he also recommended liberal arts majors take some courses in business and computing while STEM majors add courses in creativity and synthesis.

In the growing demand for cybersecurity experts, he said, “We need more people working on the problem who actually understand humans.”  Issues of privacy and ethics come from humanities studies, he noted.

“We’re living in a world where technology is easier to consume, to learn,” Berridge said, so it’s not always necessary anymore to get a degree in technology to be able to use it, he said. “The path of your success is to find your own passion.”

Roth talked about a college fair where a student was headed toward a table for philosophy and women’s studies when a parent grabbed the student’s arm and led him in another direction.

David Munson
David Munson

Munson added that during the depths of the Great Recession, parents were afraid their children wouldn’t get a job after graduating from college, and enrollments in computer science programs tripled. But he cautioned that picking a major based on a job ignores the fact that people and their interests change, he said, noting that he never dreamed of being a college president.

Berridge was even more direct: “It’s irresponsible for us to push children into subject matter we think will get them a job,” he said.

Berridge pulled job listings off a Google website and found that of the more than 9,000 jobs Google posted, less than 30 percent asked for a degree in computers. The company also needs people with expertise in marketing, sales, human relations and other non-STEM fields.

While technology fields help us know how to build things, humanities teach us what to build and why, she said.

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RIT commencement speaker an ‘inspiring thought leader’

Scientist John Seely Brown, who has explored the intersection of disciplines and helps others do the same, will be RIT’s 2019 keynote commencement speaker May 10.

Brown was chief scientist at Xerox Corp. and director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for two decades. He’s now a visiting scholar and adviser to the provost at the University of Southern California as well as the independent co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge in the Silicon Valley, an initiative helping senior executives identify and use opportunities from the intersections of business and technology.

John Seely Brown
John Seely Brown

“John Seely Brown is an inspiring thought leader in the worlds of information technology, innovation, and organizational learning,” said RIT President David Munson. “His message will serve as a capstone to our graduates’ years at RIT and excite the broader university community that is pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation in all fields.”

Brown says he “explores the white space between disciplines and builds bridges between disparate organizations and ideas.” He has earned degrees in mathematics, physics, and computer and communication sciences, and holds 10 honorary doctorates in science, design, public policy and humane letters.

RIT’s two-day commencement  will see 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students receive diplomas. Brown’s speech is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 10 in the Gordon Field House and Activities Center.

RIT wins $1.5 million in state funding round

Rochester Institute of Technology has won $1.5 million in the latest round of competitive funding from the Empire State Development Council.

The grant will upgrade the university’s Genomics Research Lab Cluster, helping it expand research, technology transfer and talent development in the life sciences industry of the Finger Lakes region.

After thanking Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the funding, RIT President David Munson said “Research and tech transfer in the life sciences represent a significant segment of the regional and state economy, spanning applications in multiple medical, energy, environmental and agricultural fields.”

The grant is part of $86.5 million that came through the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 councils competing for $763 million in state funding.

The lab cluster will occupy part of the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences in Gosnell Hall at RIT.

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RIT unwraps MAGIC Spell Studios, called a future hub for game design and film

You might call it Hollywood East. Or the Big Apple North. But the dozens of people who turned out for the grand opening Tuesday call the new building at Rochester Institute of Technology the MAGIC Spell Studios.

The 52,000-square-foot, $31 million building contains five classrooms, a sound stage, two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation studios, and two movie theaters. It’s all to help teach and commercialize the work of budding game designers, animators and filmmakers trained at RIT.

The new MAGIC Spell Studios at RIT. Photo provided by RIT
The new MAGIC Spell Studios at RIT. Photo provided by RIT

Elected officials praised the project as a giant leap forward in making the Finger Lakes Region a film-making and game-design capital, which will both create jobs and attract students and businesses who want to use the state-of-the-art-facilities. Forbes Media has already established an outpost in the partner studio space, using the help of students and faculty to design and test a publishing app used by the company’s reporters to file stories.

“It’s exciting to play the same game that is played in Hollywood and New York City. Before this building, we weren’t doing that,” said David Long, director of MAGIC Spell Studios.

Though the building has been in use since August, this week’s grand opening was its public debut, hosting scores of elected and economic development officials, along with business people and professors who teach the arts and sciences behind game design, animation and film-making.

The MAGIC program (it stands for Media, Arts, Games, Interactive, and Creativity) has been in existence for five years but was limited in facilities, Long said.

Nevertheless, budding game designers such as Noah Ratcliff, a fourth year student from Columbus, Ohio, have created fledgling companies to further the games they designed at RIT.  Ratcliff, along with fellow students Aidan Markham of Rochester and Sam Cammarata of Holland, Erie County, have created an award-winning game that plays on tablets and mobile phones based on delivering virtual garbage plates to customers.

Ratcliff told the audience of about 100 people gathered for the opening that development of Crazy Platez was helped along at every step by MAGIC, from direct support to connecting the students to the people and resources they needed.

“They pay us to work full time on our project,” he said. Crazy Platez is in beta testing now and Ratcliff expects it will be released to the public by the end of this year by his company, Aesthetic Labs, LLC.

Long said Ratcliff is participating in RIT’s Co-Up program, which provides employment and guidance for students who are creating their own businesses instead of working for existing companies.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, winking at her pun about MAGIC, said “this is really a game changer.” She reflected on how many upstate residents have watched the demise of the manufacturing economy that used to power cities such as Buffalo and Rochester. “This will become an economic powerhouse. This has unbelievable potential,” she said. “When you’re a smart, young person, this is the place you’ll want to come.”

NYS Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle reflected on the time some years ago when former RIT President William Destler and other university officials met with him to seek state funding for new facilities. Morelle told them, “This is good, but we need a ‘wow’ project.” That set off a twinkle in Destler’s eye that became this week’s MAGIC studios.

“Students who will be here for generations will owe a great debt to you,” he said to Destler, who attended the opening.

The project was put together with $13.5 million in state funding, and $17.9 combined from Dell, Cisco Systems, The Wegman Family Charitable Foundation and RIT Trustee Austin McChord.

RIT President David Munson said 50 million Americans play video games and 225,000 people are employed in that industry.

“We intend to grow more,” Munson said. “I’m convinced MAGIC Spell Studios will make the Finger Lakes an industry hub.”

The sound stage in the MAGIC Spell Studios is 7,000 square feet. Photo supplied by RIT.
The sound stage in the MAGIC Spell Studios is 7,000 square feet. Photo supplied by RIT.

Long said the game design and film and animation programs are expanding to take advantage of the facilities. Currently the university has about 1000 game design majors and 400 film and animation majors, but starting with the current freshman class, that enrollment is expanding by 30 percent over the next four years. Other majors such as new media and art will undoubtedly make use of the studio, too, he said.

MAGIC is partnering with a number of businesses such as Forbes Media.

Students gain valuable real-world experience from such residential partners, and “partners are here because of direct access to the students and faculty,” Long said. Companies partnering with RIT have a talent pool of creative students to draw from, often at much less expense than assembling a team in New York City, he said.

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First female provost to start at RIT in August

A Clemson University administrator will become the first woman ever to hold the title of provost at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Ellen Granberg, currently senior associate provost at Clemson, starts work Aug. 19 as RIT’s top academic officer. She was chosen after a national search.

“I am honored to be chosen,” Granberg said. “I was attracted to RIT by its very positive upward trajectory over the past 10 years. As provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, I hope to continue this momentum by helping to lead the strategic plan’s academic agenda, growing graduate education and research, sustaining excellence in undergraduate education and leveraging RIT’s strengths in innovation, creativity and cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

The new provost comes with a work history including both academic and industry experience. After earning a bachelor of arts in history from the University of California at Davis, Granberg worked for 11 years in the San Francisco area as a project manager and technical director in software development for Pacific Bell. She then left to advance her academic credentials, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Vanderbilt University in 2001, followed by joining the faculty at Clemson.

At Clemson, Granberg co-led development and implementation of the university’s strategic plan, created greater focus on research, improved student retention and boosted percentages both of students and faculty from underrepresented groups.

“Dr. Granberg was chosen from a truly outstanding pool of candidates, a testament to RIT’s ability to attract impressive academic talent,” said RIT President David Munson. “She helped Clemson raise its profile, and now she will bring that expertise to RIT and help propel our university into the future.”

Granberg will be moving to the area with her spouse, Sonya Rankin, who retired as a manager in the packaging industry.

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RIT launches billion-dollar fundraising campaign

The president of Rochester Institute of Technology had been promising a historic announcement for weeks.

David Munson Jr.
David Munson

Amid musical and theatrical performances at the ice rink-turned-nightclub Thursday, July 12, David C. Munson was scheduled to make the announcement before 2,000 guests: RIT has launched a $1 billion fundraising campaign to take the university to another level.

The $1 billion is the largest campaign in RIT’s history. The money would take the college from its old image of rapidly growing technical university answering the needs of industry, to a place where creativity and innovation is the norm in all disciplines, and areas such as performing arts and liberal arts are newly highlighted.

“This place is going to be much more well-rounded several years down the road,” Munson said in a recent interview.  “A lot of folks think that we’re educating the vast majority of our students for specific careers,” he said. Rather than preparing students to fit within pre-existing systems, the vision Munson articulated is for RIT students to become the makers of new systems, not just in business and computing, but in medicine, law and politics, too.

RIT’s current strengths will continue to be part of the picture — just more creatively and innovatively.

“RIT has a very strong reputation as a very career-oriented institution,” Munson said. “That’s not all we’re about anymore.”

Munson laid out a four-pillar campaign:

  • $400 million aimed at adding interdisciplinary research as well as facilities and activities for corporate research.
  • $280 million to enhance student experience, from experiential learning opportunities to creative spaces for innovation to a performing arts center.
  • $200 million for attracting special talent at the professor and student level by endowing professorships, adding teaching awards, funding student scholarships and research projects, and enhancing diversity programs.
  • $120 million for future initiatives by way of adding to the university’s endowment and educational programs.
Austin McChord
Austin McChord

If some of these plans sound familiar, that’s because they line up with plans for $50 million donated to RIT in December by 2009 alum Austin McChord. That gift is included in the $530 million already raised or pledged to the campaign over the last several years. Typical of institutional fundraising, RIT spent some time cultivating and securing major gifts (some of which have already been announced) quietly before taking the fundraising to the larger community.

What’s not typical, Munson pointed out, is the inclusion in this campaign of government grants, which was done to highlight the university’s new emphasis on research.

The university also named the leadership for “Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness”: Thomas F. Judson Jr., chairman of  Rochester’s The Pike Companies, and 1985 RIT graduate Kevin J. Surace, CEO of Appvance Inc., an Inc. magazine Entrepreneur of the Year. The campaign is scheduled to end in 2022.

While a $1 billion campaign might seem huge in Rochester terms, and it’s larger than the campaign goal that was set before Munson arrived a year ago, it’s a fairly common goal among research-level universities, according to David Bass, senior director of research for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. That amount was the median campaign goal for those types of universities in 2015, he said, first showing up in CASE’s surveys in 1997.

But it’s still a significant number, Bass said, and reflects a vote of confidence the institution expects from its supporters and the direction it has mapped out for the future.

“An institution’s ability to raise funds on such a scale is the result of sustained relationship-building with prospective donors,” Bass said. “Major gifts reflect an extraordinary level of trust in the institution, a commitment to the institution’s mission and vision, and a belief that the institution will use the funds in ways that fulfill the donor’s philanthropic goals and that have a transformative impact on lives and society.”

In some ways, RIT may have to work harder than some schools to reach its goal. Though the university was founded in 1829, its oldest living alumni graduated from a much smaller school and many graduated with two-year degrees in practical industrial fields. More recent alumni have much more company — the school has about 19,000 students here and abroad; about half of RIT’s alumni graduated in the 21st century.

“This school is essentially 50 years old,” Munson said, referring to its growth since it moved to Henrietta from downtown Rochester. “We are having to rely on younger alumni,” he said, rather than the gifts from people in their 70s and 80s that are the mainstay of many institutions.

Still, there may be more McChords out there. “We do have very notable people (alumni) out there in their 40s,” Munson said. With that in mind, “We’re going to devise our campaign materials that will attract the eyes of everybody.”

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RIT wins grant to continue pollution prevention institute

Rochester Institute of Technology has won a $19.5 million state grant to continue operating the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) for another five years.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos announced the grant today, though it’s still subject to approval by the Office of the State Comptroller.

RIT has operated the institute for the last decade and will continue working on pollution prevention with a consortium including Binghamton University, Clarkson University, Cornell University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the NY State Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) network.

“NYSP2I’s approach goes beyond compliance-driven activities and focuses on preventing pollution at its source and identifying opportunities to make New York companies more efficient and economically stronger,” Seggos said. “RIT has done a tremendous job operating NYSP2I for the past decade, and DEC looks forward to continuing our work together to reduce the pollution entering New York’s environment and the waste entering our landfills.”

The institute has helped businesses identify ways to prevent pollution, find greener inputs, make sustainable products, reduce waste and gain green certifications. It will also administer annual block grants to companies

“We are thrilled to receive this award to continue to operate the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, ” said RIT President David Munson. “We are proud of the impact that NYSP2I has had in helping businesses reduce their environmental impacts in ways that also improve their operations and their bottom lines. This partnership with New York state, our terrific university partners and the strong network of statewide MEPs is a model of successful collaboration that leads to outstanding results, and the re-designation will enable us to engage with more companies and organizations in these efforts.”

“We look forward to expanding our impact in the future,” said the institute’s director, Charles Ruffing, “as we work to identify opportunities that will continue to help businesses, communities and the citizens of New York become more sustainable.”

The institute has helped businesses identify ways to prevent pollution, find greener inputs, make sustainable products, reduce waste and gain green certifications. It will also administer nearly $1 million in annual block grants to companies and organizations for raising awareness about pollution prevention locally to improve health, environmental quality and economic sustainability.

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Imagine RIT has record number of exhibitors, new performing arts contest


Old favorites and new creations are set to entertain visitors to this year’s Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival, taking place on Saturday, April 28 on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.

The Theme Park Engineering exhibit will be at Imagine RIT once again.
The Theme Park Engineering exhibit will be at Imagine RIT once again.

The automated s’more maker has been supplanted by an automated T-shirt printer, but the milkshake blender operated by peddling a bicycle is back for the 11th year in a row. And a new competition begins this year, the night before the festival.

Imagine RIT, started in 2007, typically draws 30,000 people to see hundreds of exhibits displaying what people connected to the university have dreamt up, from student research to video games to business ventures to pure serendipity. A record 438 exhibitors are participating this year during the festival, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

New this year, though, is the new RIT president’s take on things: President David Munson will emcee a performing arts competition Friday that will invite the winner to be part of opening day ceremonies Saturday morning.

“There are very bright students at RIT from an academic perspective, but there’s so much more depth from them on the artistic side, and that’s what he’s trying to emphasize,” said Heather Cottone, manager of special projects (Imagine RIT included) for the RIT Office of the President. “Maybe you have a medical illustration or biology major who has this dancing talent or a wonderful singing voice.”

Munson, an engineer who wrote and starred in music rap videos at his former institution, has frequently commented that engineers and scientists often possess musical and other performing arts talents that should be encouraged and expressed.

Cottone said 20 acts applied to be in the president’s competition and 12 were selected as finalists. They will compete from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday in the Ingle Auditorium. Cottone said the finalists include singers, instrumentalists, a juggler and dancers, including one who is deaf.

Reviewing some of the hundreds of exhibits—many of them hands-on—that will be shared at Imagine RIT, Cottone said addressing the needs of the differently abled is a growing theme among many.

“Many, many projects are addressing the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” she said. Some others focus on sight or mobility issues.

“The other thing I’ve seen increase quite a bit since the festival first started is the business — the entrepreneurs at RIT — whether multidisciplinary teams or one or two,” Cottone said.  “Student Innovation Hall on the west side of campus has to find other places to exhibit because they’ve run out of space.”

The exhibiting entrepreneurs will include those who have graduated or are in graduate school and just getting started in business. They include OWA Haircare, which has created a powdered shampoo that turns into a creamy liquid when applied to wet hair.

Last year’s exhibit featured OWA founder and CEO Kailey Bradt at a table with what she described as “an unlabeled bottle of product and a bowl of water.” Even with such a bare-bones exhibit to draw their attention, at least 200 people tried turning the powder into shampoo and several hundred more observed the demonstration, Bradt said.

“Everyone thought it was really, really interesting. We had men, women, children, college students,” Bradt said. “Everyone was really excited about the product, which was great for us to see. We got a lot of great feedback.”

This year’s exhibit will feature the powdered shampoo again, but with videos, several team members doing demonstrations, formal branding and postcards with information on how to stay in touch as OWA Moondust Hairwash goes into production. OWA also plans to make hair conditioner and styling products that start out as powder and can be reconstituted, making them easier to transport before or after sale.

Bradt said participating in Imagine RIT is one way to pay back the support she received from RIT during her undergraduate and graduate years there. It’s a “way to show the community what the entrepreneurship program can offer,” she said. Because OWA has received much more publicity since last year’s festival, she expects more people will stop by to see what the fledgling company is up to.

Similarly, previous festival attendees will want to check in on some of the fan favorites, such as Theme Park Engineering 4.0, with the 4.0 signifying the fourth year the engineers have built a massive theme park ride out of K’Nex.

Over the years, the RIT festival also has expanded geographically. While once it was featured in just some of the academic buildings and surrounding outdoor areas, it now spans the entire academic part of the campus, Cottone said.

“As the campus has grown, the festival has grown westward,” she said. “It’s exciting and it gives visitors an opportunity to see more and do more.”

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RIT alum makes historic contribution of $50 million


Austin McChord
Austin McChord

The founder and CEO of a Connecticut data-protection company is giving Rochester Institute of Technology $50 million, the largest donation in the university’s history and one of the largest ever in the Rochester region.

Austin McChord, 32, a 2009 graduate of RIT and a member of the university’s board of trustees, founded Datto in the basement of his father’s office building in Norwalk, Conn., before he graduated from RIT and grew it to a worth of more than $1 billion. The company was just acquired by Vista Equity Partners and merged with Autotask Corp. to create a new company, which McChord will head as CEO. Datto has about 1,400 employees in nine countries, including about 200 in Rochester.

“My success today would not have been possible without my time at RIT,” McChord said. He graduated from RIT in 2009 with a degree in bioinformatics.

In light of the historic nature of the donation, RIT invited the public, students, parents and other members of the community to attend the announcement on the Henrietta campus Wednesday afternoon, and also made arrangements to have it streamed live. More than 4,000 people watched the announcement online, while perhaps 200 packed into the Simone Center for Student Innovation to hear the announcement firsthand and celebrate with cowbells and other hoopla.

When RIT President David Munson made the actual announcement, it was greeted by gasps and other exclamations, clapping, cowbell ringing and a standing ovation.

The donation is larger than any other given to a local education institution; next largest would seem to be the $30 million donated by Edmund A. Hajim to the University of Rochester in 2008. The only larger donation in general that observers could recall is the $61 million that brothers Richard and Robert Sands and their mother, Mickey Sands, donated to the Rochester Area Community Foundation in 2016, creating the Sands Family Supporting Foundation. The Sands are the family behind beverage giant Constellation Brands, founded as Canandaigua Wines by the late patriarch, Marvin Sands.

At RIT, no prior single donation has exceeded $14 million. The largest cumulative donation to RIT to this point has been $34.5 million from James S. Gleason and the Gleason Family Foundation, representing the family behind the Rochester company that has made gear-making machinery for more than a century.

McChord’s donation has been designated for two major areas:

  • $30 million for programs and facilities to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship at RIT, including $17.5 million to launch a Maker Library & Innovative Learning Complex of the Future. The new building will connect RIT’s Wallace Center (the current library) and the Student Alumni Union. Included are funds for equipment, faculty positions and scholarships, such as new “Entrepreneurial Gap Year” fellowships.
  • $20 million to bolster RIT’s study of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, primarily in its College of Computing and Information Sciences. The funds will expand facilities and establish endowments for faculty and graduate students.

“A gift of this magnitude will help propel RIT from excellence to preeminence,” said Munson. “We are so proud of our alumnus Austin McChord. He was passionate about his idea and he turned it into a big success. This embodies the creative element that we want to further highlight at RIT. Every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting the result into play. His investment in RIT will help our students and faculty make their mark on the world.”

McChord said former RIT President Bill Destler, who is a friend, inspired him to make the donation.

“My goal with this gift is two-fold,” said McChord. “First, is to help make more resources available to students, alumni and the community at-large to create, build and innovate for the future. But it’s also to help recognize those who helped you along the way.”

Destler, who retired June, helped give the background about how the donation came to be before Munson announced the size of the historic gift.

“I am thrilled that Austin McChord has chosen to share his success with RIT in the form of this most generous gift,” Destler said. “It’s truly been a pleasure to get to know him and to watch his business grow, internationally as well as right here in Rochester, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for him as well as for the programs and projects this gift will support.”

McChord and Destler said the gift had been in the works for a couple of years, but was waiting to be executed when Datto was acquired, providing capital McChord could donate. ” ‘What are you going to do with all this money?,’ ” McChord recalled Destler asking. When McChord told Destler that he wanted to cap the donation at $50 million should the sale be especially fruitful, he said Destler looked a little disappointed.

“Until this moment, (heading) down in the elevator, I had no idea it would be such a big deal,” McChord said.

McChord has remained an active part of RIT, frequently serving as a speaker at various events, including the 2017 commencement. His company sponsored RIT48, an entrepreneurship competition, and he has been a mentor for RIT’s SummerStart program for entrepreneurs who want to develop their business concepts.

Datto was the first company to take advantage of the Start-Up NY program in the Rochester area in 2014, sharing space at RIT’s Downtown Center at 40 Franklin St. It has expanded to house some of its employees at The Metropolitan, formerly known as Chase Tower. McChord said the Rochester part of the company will continue along the same path it has been on since 2014, and the company will continue to be called Datto.

RIT gave McChord a gift in appreciation for the donation, using part of his commencement speech as a suggestion. In that speech, which Munson played at the press conference, McChord told graduates that he began Datto hoping to sell it for $100,000 so he could buy an Audi sports car like the one the comic book character Iron Man drives. The college presented him with a toy Audi large enough for a toddler to ride in and painted RIT orange. Munson said he hoped it would fit in with the wall of Legos, ball pit and other toys in place at Datto.


RIT's gift to mega-donor Austin McChord
RIT’s gift to mega-donor Austin McChord

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