Through tomorrow's lens
Rochester has a long history of optics and innovation. Luminate NY keeps that alive.
This magazine is full of stories about good things that are happening to Rochester. But I hear a lot of pessimism around the city. Unemployment and a lack of industry are common complaints, and many Rochesterians considered Kodak filing for bankruptcy to be the end of an era—the death of the Flower City’s international reputation.
But we’re witnessing a renaissance. Since 2010 the city’s unemployment rate has halved. The initiative to rejuvenate Rochester is a collective effort among every sector. And NextCorps’ program Luminate NY is part of that.
I sat down with Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director for Luminate NY. “NextCorps is the organization, which runs many programs under it,” she explains. “Luminate NY is the optics, photonics, and imaging accelerator that is funded by the Empire State Development Finger Lakes Forward Initiative. So it is a program of NextCorps.” Ramanujan herself has a PhD in optical engineering and has started three companies of her own, as well as having worked at at Kodak, Chrysler, GE, and Carestream before getting involved in venture investment.
NextCorps—and by extension, Luminate NY—is a complex organization. Investors don’t typically come in the form of not-for-profits—but then again, not every investor is specifically dedicated to reestablishing the region’s economy. As an incubator, NextCorps serves as a coworking space for its start-ups and offers mentorship and curricula. As a start-up accelerator, Luminate NY provides similar services focused solely on optics, photonics, and imaging over the span of its six-month program.
In order to decide which companies receive funding, Ramanujan and her board of colleagues rifle through dozens of applications before choosing ten start-ups to award a $100,000 investment each. At the end of the six-month accelerator program, the board chooses one company to award $1 million. After that, there is an additional million to grant at the board’s discretion. “We can put $2 million in one company or split it up,” Ramanujan says. “Like this year, we put $1 million in one company, gave a second one $500,000, and gave two $250,000 investments.”
As for participation requirements? “First of all, they must actually be a company,” Ramanujan says. If a start-up is in the early stages of working on a concept or trying to build a prototype, Luminate isn’t the program for them. Companies must consist of at least two dedicated employees and demonstrate a working prototype they’re ready to finalize and mass produce. “Aside from showing us a functioning prototype in optics, photonics, or imaging,” she says, “They need to be able to come here.”
While Luminate is a global initiative that values working with international companies, an important aspect of the program is its dedication to the Rochester area. “First of all, to be in the program you have to live here during the program. But to win,” she says, “you have to show us what you’re going to do in the area. Because if you’re just going to stay through 2019, that’s not adequate. What we want to see is, are you making a commitment to Rochester? Are you hiring anybody in the area? What are you doing here that makes us think you’re committed to more than six to nine months or a year?”
Double Helix Optics, the 2018 $1 million winner, manufactures its key component here in Rochester and is working with the University of Rochester to expand its operations. Every company that Luminate has invested in is firmly rooted in Rochester. Even the Dublin-based Think BioSolution is working to establish a U.S. entity in the city. Ramanujan and her board, which includes members of the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester, take this aspect very seriously.
It’s fitting, then, that NextCorps is headquartered in the Sibley Building. Despite the 3D printers, wet lab, and ultramodern office spaces, the organization inhabits one of the most historic buildings in Rochester. The glass walls and cheeky furniture aren’t quite at odds with the crown molding and intricate archways, though. “It’s kind of a merging of what has been here and what is good about the area,” says Ramanujan. Rochester has been a leader in the world of optics since the nineteenth century. Even today, she says, half of all graduates in optical engineering come from the U of R. “You can’t say, you know, ‘we invented some lens a hundred years ago. That’s us.’ No, you want to show that while that legacy is the backbone of it, there’s so much that’s going on that’s new, that’s modern. That it’s come a long way and continually progressed.”
Throughout Ramanujan’s career, she has seen a lot of start-ups that want to be like Silicon Valley, so they try to design a product to represent that. Ramanujan’s advice? “You aren’t! You are what you are. Adopt things that are useful to you and keep the things that are true to you. And I think that’s something that people need to understand—and be honest with yourself. Be what you are, and that will be successful.”
As we packed up, I retouched on Rochester’s historic excellence and the pessimism a lot of citizens today share. “I’ve lived in a lot of places, and pessimism happens in a lot of places,” Ramanujan says. “But innovators and entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic. Right? Because you put everything on the line to make it happen. It’s a choice you make when you get up in the morning: to be optimistic. If we all sat down and figured out every way things could go wrong or fail, none of us would get out of bed in the morning. So we have to have that optimism in ourselves, so others can feel it and see it.”
“Because there’s so much good,” she stresses. “There’s just so much good.” Luminate.org
John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, johnmwrites.com