Buffalo Business First – Nasir Ali talks about startups in Upstate NY

May 18, 2017

Nasir Ali has been thinking about the challenge of tech startups in Central and Western New York for a long time.

The entrepreneur and technology executive founded The Tech Garden, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship in Syracuse, and an associated incubator that was one of the first such facilities between Albany and Buffalo. He is the founder and executive director of the Seed Capital Fund of Central New York, one of the earliest angel groups in Upstate New York. He is managing director of the StartFast Venture Accelerator, a Syracuse based program in which dozens of companies have participated since the inaugural 2012 class.

Finally, Ali is the co­-founder of Upstate Venture Connect, which seeks to conjoin the separate technology communities in Central and Western New York and raise their collective visibility.

Ali visited Buffalo Wednesday and took a few minutes to chat with Buffalo Business First about startups across the state.

Ali said growing technology ecosystems exist in various cities from Albany to Buffalo, but increased connectivity and visibility are crucial to attracting more talent and forming a collective front. He said that’s the reason for the UNY50 Leadership Network, but said there’s much more work to be done.

“Visibility is the single biggest problem our region faces,” he said. “All our communities have grown up in isolation with each other, which informs the way we think about our boundaries, and is also the way the state doles out its money. But the real competition is not between Buffalo or Rochester or Syracuse, it’s between those cities and the rest of the world, particularly the big metro areas that are attracting our best and brightest. We have to create great visibility so that people are aware there are a lot of great companies that are hiring where you can have fast growth, fast learning and fast advancement.”

Ali rejected the philosophy of “clustering” that has informed much of the state’s economic development policy under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and which theorizes that a critical mass of infrastructure – such as nanotechnology in Albany or health sciences in Buffalo – will lead to niche startup industries. He said UVC’s recently completed CEO survey (conducted by Rochester­based CGR) shows little connection between a startup’s industry and its location in New York state.

“The reality is very different from the perception,” Ali said of the clustering philosophy. “Entrepreneurship is much more broadbased than most of us are led to believe. The notion of clustering is not really how entrepreneurs are organized because in this day and age you can start a business anywhere.”

Ali’s visit to Buffalo came at the invitation of Colligan Law attorney Matthew Pelkey, who is heavily involved in the Buffalo and Upstate technology scenes. Pelkey visited Syracuse in February and wrote about his impressions, noting how visible tech companies are in downtown Syracuse compared to Buffalo, which has a bigger and more dispersed downtown that rarely gives off the appeal of an energetic urban environment. Ali addressed what Syracuse has done well.

“Syracuse has 15 years of creating an incubator, creating a seed fund, creating program after program that haven’t waited for government to come in.” (Editor’s note: That’s compared to Buffalo, where progress in the innovation economy has been heavily subsidized by New York state.)

“Early-­stage investing in Syracuse is in some ways significantly greater than larger communities across Upstate, and the result of that is you are now beginning to see, five or 10 years later, a lot more companies. They have placed a lot more bets.” (Editor’s note: Ali pointed out three substantial tech firms in downtown Syracuse that began as funded startups, including TCGplayer, SwipeToSpin and Ephesus Lighting.)

“Lastly, these pieces have helped convert downtown from empty commercial office buildings and abandoned department stores into residential living with lofts, co-­working spaces and co­-living spaces, and it has really transformed the demographics of downtown. It is reviving all the street level retail that was languishing because most people were commuting in and out and not living downtown.”

The original article can be found on the Buffalo Business First website: