ITHACA, N.Y. — Creating a successful new hardware company, says Ken Rother, goes far beyond having a good idea.

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Entrepreneurs first need to invent and design new physical products. But then, Rother notes, they also face a myriad of other obstacles: Figuring out how to get those products and all their component parts designed and built; acquiring the capital to get the products onto the market; and, among other challenges, finding the necessary infrastructure to make it all possible.

Rother thinks this region can become a destination for aspiring hardware entrepreneurs — and, by extension, unleash a wave of new local manufacturing companies. Apparently the federal government shares his optimism.

On Monday, an array of prominent officials — including U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Svante Myrick and Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett — gathered at a business incubator in downtown Ithaca. A principal purpose of the meeting was to highlight a new $500,000 federal grant intended to advance Rother’s goal of building a better “ecosystem” for hardware development in Central New York.

From left to right, Mayor Svante Myrick, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Matt Erskine of the federal Economic Develompent Administration, and Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett

“There’s really interesting companies, but this is not seen as a place to go do business,” says Rother, an “entrepreneur-in-residence” at the Southern Tier Innovation Hot Spot, a regional public-private consortium to promote this kind of growth.

“We want companies thinking, ‘Let’s come to Upstate New York to start a hardware company.’”

Already, Rother says, there’s been some success in the push to bring hardware development to the Ithaca area and surrounding region. With the help of a previous federal grant, Rother has had nine hardware companies work on turning their ideas into a reality through an “accelerator” program this summer at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works.

Rother at Monday’s event
Rother at Monday’s event

“Some of them will go on, and some of them wont,” Rother says. “…But at the end of the accelerator program, they’re ready to start tackling the issues of going to production … hopefully moving from the napkin to the prototype.”

Rother stressed that these initiatives aim to tap into the region’s history as a place where manufacturing can thrive, citing General Electric, Borg Warner and similar companies.

“We’d like them to leverage the legacy of Upstate New York manufacturing,” Rother says of the new hardware companies. “There was a big legacy of manufacturing in this part of the world; we’d like them to rekindle that.”

At Monday’s event, a panel discussion included a member of at least one of those hardware companies: Micah Green, a Cornell student and founder of Maidbot, a housekeeping robot for hotels. Other panelists included member companies in REV, the downtown Ithaca incubator, such as Adam Maher, president and founder at Ursa Space Systems.

“Each new story about REV generates excitement and innovation,” said another panelist, Cornell’s President Garrett, at the event.

Mayor Myrick, left, with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, center, and Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett, right. The three spoke at REV: Ithaca Startup Works on Monday.

Similarly, Sen. Gillibrand spoke of the importance of turning “ideas into real, tangible businesses that can help this region thrive.”

The $500,000 grant for regional growth is coming from the Economic Development Administration, a federal agency.

Representing that agency at Monday’s event was Matt Erskine, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development in President Barack Obama’s Department of Commerce.

Erskine stressed the importance of programs like the one being run locally for diversifying the area’s economy.

“You all know this region best … our job is to find a way to assist that,” Erskine said. “We’re very excited about the work you’re doing here.”

Still, Erskine also spoke at length about the challenges in the field and produced some sobering statistics, noting:

1 — That government research and development spending had plummeted relative to national GDP;

2 — That the rate of start-up innovation had declined in every state across the country over the last 10 years;

3 — The total funding of the EDA still represents a “rounding error” as a percentage of the federal budget.

“These are the challenges we face,” Erskine said, “as we try to grow the small business economy.”

People gathered in The Ithaca Commons to protest the storage of fracked gas in salt caverns by Seneca Lake.

Appearing outside the event were a group of protesters with “We Are Seneca Lake,” who oppose a plan from Crestwood Midstream to store fracked gas in salt caverns by Seneca Lake.

Other issues addressed at Monday’s roundtable discussion:

Here are three other issues that were discussed during Monday’s roundtable discussion:

1) The airport

A few panelists, including Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson, stressed that the Ithaca area faced crucial transportation challenges that could inhibit growth. She worried in particular about the Ithaca airport.

“It’s absolutely critical,” she said. “If our airport suffers, we’re really going to be a backwater.”

Her concerns were strongly echoed by Nick Nickitas, founder and CEO of the Ithaca-based online grocery app Rosie.

2) The Commons construction

At the event, Mayor Svante Myrick thanked Sen. Gillibrand for her role in securing federal funding for the $15 million Commons construction project.

“The senator, truly, was one of the largest champions of this project,” Myrick said, “without her, it would not have happened.”

3) Women in entrepreneurship

Some panelists emphasized the importance of ensuring that women and minorities are involved in creating and growing their own companies regionally. (Tech entrepreneurship has historically faced heavy criticism for drawing primarily white men.)

Chelsea Kingsley, president of Kingsley Quality Woodworking, spoke at the panel about a recent event at Rev that brought together female entrepreneurs in the region.

“It’s an eye-opener for women to be able to see how many of us there are out there,” she said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.