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NEW YORK CITY-New York City’s universities and research institutions have not become powerful catalysts for entrepreneurship and local economic development, at least the way similar institutions have in other regions according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future.

The Manhattan think tank’s report, titled “Building New York City’s Innovation Economy,” says while the city is home to a number of the world’s leading scientific institutions, the city has failed to harness their full economic development potential, and that, the report says, inhibits efforts at building an innovation economy.

Ringing the alarm bells of a 10.3% unemployment rate, CUF director Jonathon Bowles tells GlobeSt.com that “we have to look closely at all opportunities for diversifying our economy.”

Taking into account the high cost of real estate and a shortage of affordable lab space, the study charges that the universities themselves, have not been particularly supportive of efforts to “spin-off new tech ventures, [are] not dedicated enough to funneling resources to engineering programs and according to the report, too preoccupied with licensing the technologies from university research to existing firms located elsewhere–rather than [to] start-ups that have the potential to create jobs locally.”

New York University’s VP of public affairs, John Beckman tells Globest.com that NYU has great respect for the work at the CUF. However, he also cites “a report by the Milken Institute that found that research universities in New York–NYU, Columbia, and Rockefeller–were among the top institutions in the world in terms of biotechnology publications, biotech patents and the Milken Institute’s Technology Transfer and Commercialization Index. Moreover, NYU Poly was just chosen by the mayor’s office to participate in a business incubator.”

In response to GlobeSt.com’s questions, Beckman says the Milken report suggests a more robust entrepreneurship on the part of NYC universities than the CUF report appears to describe. “While I cannot speak for the other universities, I can say that NYU’s approach to patentable discoveries is at the top tier in higher [education] in terms of its generosity to the scholar, an important incentive in spurring entrepreneurship,” he says.

At Columbia University, the executive director of its technology ventures division, Orin Herskowitz, tells GlobeSt.com that the greater challenge from his university’s perspective was more about getting new ventures to locate in New York City and stay in New York City.

Regardless, the handwriting was on the wall this past June. A report that month from the New York State Department of Labor said the projected cumulative peak total employment losses–direct plus ripple effects–due to the financial meltdown for the entire state are almost 300,000 by 2011, with 250,000 of those losses occurring in New York City alone.

Further stirring already difficult waters, the CUF report notes that New York City is home to only six companies on the Deloitte 2008 Technology Fast 500 list. That’s an annual ranking of 500 fast growing technology media, telecommunications and life sciences companies in North America. New York City’s six firms compares to San Francisco, where 88 firms made the list; Los Angeles where 50 call home; and fellow East coast cities like Boston, with 41 firms, and DC, with 47, fared much better.

In simple terms, the report spells out that tech entrepreneurs in New York find very few options for early stage financing. In fact, of the top 55 most active venture capital firms in the nation in 2007, only two were based in New York City. Silicon Valley was home to 27 and Boston to 11.

Overall, the CUF report says many if not most New York academic research institutions have a lot of room to improve, and in turn, impact such dire sounding numbers. On a positive note, the report cites Columbia University’s 12 start-ups, which the report says are more than all others in the nation, save four universities .

“I can’t speak for the other institutions, but Columbia has launched 12 or 13 start-up companies a year for the past three years,” says Herskowitz, who is also VP for intellectual property and technology transfer. “When you adjust that for the size of Columbia, in terms of research funding, versus a school like MIT in Boston, that actually compares relatively favorably.”

Herskowitz says that a lot of things cited in the report as “not happening” in fact “are happening.” He says “the business school, the engineering school and our office are collaborating all the time on entrepreneurship events. We host a lecture at least once a month, we bring a local venture capitalist, or a local entrepreneur to talk about how to start a company and we host events on intellectual property for start-up companies.”

Even so, Bowles says that’s not enough. He says there hasn’t been the leadership by universities to spur and create a more entrepreneurial mindset among faculty and researchers, which, he says, would create commercialization programs that ensure more scientific discoveries are converted into start up companies that stay local.”

“With our academic research institutions, the city has a golden opportunity to create a new engine of job growth,” Bowles says adding that other regions “have milked their research institutions for entrepreneurial and high growth companies.”

Beckham further counters that “research universities do not direct their scholars what to study; it is incompatible with our ideas of scholarship to insist that researchers focus their efforts on some particular set of challenges in order to achieve a commercial outcome. Instead, we make a major commitment to the pursuit and creation of knowledge through such efforts as the building of labs, the constant improvement of IT resources, and, most importantly, through the recruitment of top faculty. The faculty we recruit are men and women at the forefront of their fields; we trust intheir passion as scholars to pursue research that answers importantquestions, solves key problems, and this sometimes yields an outcome with a commercial application.”

Meanwhile, the Center for an Urban Future report says that Mayor Bloomberg has taken a number of positive steps, including the digital media center at Polytechnic University in Downtown Brooklyn, two other incubators in Lower Manhattan, the creation of NYCSeed, a new entity providing capital to some early-stage technology firms in the city.

Herskowitz applauds those efforts carried out by the City of New York’s Economic Development Corp. The CUF report says the EDC has become “increasingly active.”

“Because the city is focusing on it, everyone else is focusing too,” says Herskowitz. He adds, “The mayor is bringing all the parties to the table–the NYUs, the Rockefellers and the Columbias–to talk with the New York City Partnership, the local venture capital,” which he says is producing a lot of “very interesting conversations.”

Beckham says NYU’s “affiliation with NYU-Poly–formerlyPolytechnic University–will give us new channels for the commercialization of NYU generated ideas, and we are looking at ways to expand on those possibilities.”

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