Have you ever heard of “rapid plasma deposition?” I haven’t, but it sounds geeky cool right? It sounds like the future.
Rapid plasma deposition is a technology that a company called Norsk Titanium deploys to make cutting edge aerospace components. Sounds even cooler, right? But the coolest thing yet, in August of 2016, the administration and SUNY Poly promised that a state investment of $125 million in Norsk Titanium would create 400 jobs and leverage over $1 billion dollars over ten years for the world’s first industrial-scale additive 3-D printing facility for aerospace production in Plattsburgh, New York.
In the wake of SUNY Poly projects seemingly dropping like flies around the state, I wonder today if this project is next?
After all, the company is only 12 years old (only 4 of those in production). According to their Linkedin page, the company employs somewhere between 51-200 people (primarily in Norway). Disturbingly, I can only find $25 million in private funding raised and that followed the inclusion in the 2016 New York State budget of the $125 million to support the development of Norsk. Most importantly though, I wonder if the economic / technology analysis made by SUNY Poly in securing the deal in 2016, matches with the Zemsky-ESD metrics of the New Year. Late Friday, ESD pulled the plug on a $40 million “transformational” Rochester photonics project concluding that the “deal does not meet the standards required for a significant state investment of taxpayer dollars…and as a result, the state is no longer pursuing the project with Photonica.” It was just the latest project in the SUNY Poly portfolio to be scuttled.
So today we wonder, does the $125 million dollar deal with Norsk “meet the standards for a significant state investment?”
Here’s the problem, despite being an occasionally smart guy, who has spent some time in economic development, who actually nurtures an abiding interest in science and even after researching this company, I have no idea of the viability of Norsk’s technology in the marketplace. As in zero. And no offense to Commissioner Zemsky or my former colleagues at ESD, for whom I have great respect, I doubt they really know either.
But, I know someone who does, Alain Kaloyeros.
I first met Alain in 1997, when I took over day-to-day management of the New York State Science and Tech Foundation (NYSTAR’s predecessor). Alain at the time was running one of the State’s 14 Centers for Advanced Technology (CAT). Every year, each CAT received $1 million dollars, regardless of their performance. We decided to change that and work to reward CATs more funding from that $14 million dollar appropriation based on performance, with an emphasis on economic impact. That idea thrilled Alain, he loved the competition and he of course out performed all of the other Centers. But this was just small potatoes, Alain had much bigger plans.
Kaloyeros went on to head the Center for Excellence in Nanotechnology, the most advanced research facility of its kind in the world. The Center would become the home of Sematech and literally thousands of researchers, engineers, students, from companies around the world including: IBM, Tokoyo Electron, Samsung, ASML, Samsung and many, many more. Under his leadership the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering was established and in 2004 graduated the world’s first PH.D degrees in nanoscience. Let’s just say, in the parlance of the day, his accomplishments are not “overrated.”
But or the record, while any mention has been expunged from its website, the institution that we call SUNY Poly and the state of the art edifice that stands at corner of Fuller and Washington, would have never come into existence without Governor Pataki’s unyielding support, intellectual curiosity, vision and yes the checks and balances that defined Alain’s early years of ascendancy. Alain may have been hired under the late Mario Cuomo, but it was George Pataki who set him on the path to be a modern-day Robert Moses of New York technology infrastructure. (A few months ago, I’m sure that description would have rankled some, today they are probably giddy that anyone else is claiming responsibility.) It’s been a source of great disappointment to many Pataki alumni that in recent years Kaloyeros went all native and acceded to a desire to try to rewrite this history with Putin like accuracy. But as I like to say, “it’s just business.” As the ultimate salesman, Alain always understood how to trade in the currency necessary to curry favor, win continued support and grow his influence.
Alain is charismatic, personable, funny, dictatorial, irreverent, brilliant, stubborn, at times flattering and others infuriating. But most importantly, when he wanted to, he had an uncanny ability to make you feel like you could understand the promise of science and technology to the future of New York. He didn’t dumb it down as much as he talked it up and made you feel like you were inside on the ground floor of technologies that are driving the world economy. He used that ability to convince a series of Governors, elected officials and CEO’s of tech companies, large and small, to invest and invest big in his plans, his projects, his dreams.
To his credit, Kaloyeros outlasted and outmaneuvered University Presidents, Majority Leaders, Speakers, State Senators, Chancellors, Commissioners and Trustees. He managed to free himself legally, not just from the oversight of the University at Albany, he actually got himself his own college. With the Fuller Road and Ft. Schuyler Foundations, he made IDAs and LDCs look like quaint, stodgy development instruments. That’s one hell of a bureaucratic and political feat.
During our time working together it was clear that he regarded Empire State’s Development approach to job development as prehistoric, incremental at best. We disagreed on this point – even as I came to appreciate the value of investing in high-tech infrastructure. Now, let’s address that a little and get some history straight. Alain was not alone in his pursuit of the semiconductor industry. Under Governor Pataki landing a fab was a priority for every department of government; from ESD, to the Office of Regulatory Affairs, from SUNY to the Departments of Labor and Tax. It’s why in 2003 Pataki was the Semiconductor Industry Association’s Noyce Man of the Year. It was also the goal pursued by multiple talented partners in local government from Saratoga County to Oneida County, from Orange County to Genesee County.
Nor was Alain responsible for the Global Foundries deal.
But to be 1000% clear — there would be no Global Foundries in Malta without SUNY Poly and there would be no SUNY Poly without Alain Kaloyeros.
Science and technology is a dangerous area for many elected officials because it’s an area typically outside their depth and as a result they too often cede authority hoping to get results. As a result, over the years, unconstrained and empowered, Alain Kaloyeros has become a one man public sector version of Kleiner Perkins, making high stakes and increasingly higher risk bets on the future of technology with the State of New York’s checkbook. But here’s the thing and there is no escaping it, these investments were all made in the light of day, with great fanfare. This is not news, what’s news is that people are finally taking note of the risk.
Today, Alain faces some trouble. Like Norsk, I have no idea what’s real and what’s not. People always surprise, but I’m quite certain Alain’s motivations had zero to do with self-enrichment. He’s a builder, a salesman, an entrepreneur with an ego so huge, that it’s surpassed only by his capacity for work. But for whatever his flaws, he articulated a positive future for our state and helped transform the Capital Region. He had the amazing ability to make those who desperately want to revive upstate New York, believe that he had the magic formula to make it happen. We all wanted to believe and some wanted to believe so badly that they looked past the obvious red flags.
So what of Norsk? Alain has supreme confidence in his ability to see the future of technology and despite his current difficulties, I’m sure he remains unshaken in the belief that it’s a good bet for the State. He might be right, I hope he’s right, but my guess is we never know and another fly drops.