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Pitney Bowes MapInfo President Michael Hickey says the positive image of business growth in Tech Valley, which encompasses the Capital Region and the Hudson River Valley, has helped his company to recruit people from outside the region. “Now the image has really changed. I travel all over the world and people are impressed when I tell them where I am from, and they want to locate here,” says Hickey.

Meanwhile, strong investment by New York state has included $33 million for the supercomputer, $10 million for the GE Healthcare plant, and $500,000 for WMHT’s digital broadcast center.

Wacholder points out that these positive developments might not have been leveraged so well if not for the involvement of Rensselaer’s president. He credits President Shirley Ann Jackson for cultivating industrial partnerships that have created support for ambitious initatives like CCNI. “She has brought powerful players such as IBM and GE to the table,” says Wacholder. “She was the driving force behind both deals.”

A Vision Takes Root

A stalled economy and a skeptical public did not deter Rensselaer from allocating $3 million in 1981 to begin developing on a 1,200-acre parcel six miles from campus in North Greenbush. Plans for the Tech Park were launched in the late 1970s with then President George Low’s idea to start a research park at Rensselaer that would bring together government, business, and academia.

But the idea of forging such off-campus links was met with skepticism, says Wacholder. The economy was in a downturn and the Capital Region had not yet begun retooling from its faded industrial past. Universities were still largely detached
from community life.

But the Institute was committed to merging learning opportunities with business, an early step toward fostering town-gown relationships. By 1981, Rensselaer trustees proceeded. Two years later the park welcomed its first tenant, an optoelectronics facility operated by National Semiconductor Corp. Soon, the park greeted the early wave of software developers, much as Silicon Valley, nurtured by Stanford University, had embraced and was named for the new-wave technology of that time.

Ever since, the park has captured a representation of the newest innovations. But the site also tells the story of national economic slowdowns. In the early 1980s it was recession. Following the 1990s boom, the growth came to a standstill, as the dot-com bubble burst and the economy reeled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


Mike Wacholder, Rensselaer Technology Park director, has been with the park since its founding.

“The proximity of university to corporation is the exact scenario Rensselaer planners envisioned 30 years ago when they began to conceive the idea of the park.”

MapInfo struggled through seven tough years by making workforce reductions, discontinuing projects that would produce no immediate results, and cutting back costs. The company survived in part by taking steps that would reflect a permanent change, rather than behaving as if the world would once again right itself.

The park did not lose any large tenants during that period. But Wacholder says that he “worked with” a few, which can involve making difficult judgment calls.

Challenges to the park also include remaining financially self-sustaining without straying from its mission of providing a mix of high technology, cultural, and educational tenants. Wacholder says the standards have been loosened at times, but never enough to skew the character.

A Walk in the Park

As GE Healthcare broke ground, global demand for digital mammography was growing at a startling 25 percent or more a year. GE was the first with digital mammography; it had taken nearly 20 years to develop at its Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna. The machine improved greatly on film, enabling physicians to pinpoint breast cancer far earlier and save thousands of lives every year. Now, competitors were catching up and it was impossible to keep up without a facility in which to produce them.

The optimal solution would be to find a site within 15 miles of Niskayuna so that the engineers and researchers could accelerate the technology to its next level. About a dozen candidates emerged, some in farm fields without the proper infrastructure or zoning in place; others in brownfields, where a protracted permitting process was practically a guarantee. A few urban spots also were considered, says GE’s Feist. But these would have limited expansion opportunities or force a facility to be spread across different sites.

The Tech Park became a leading candidate because the landlord would be responsible for many of the logistics—dealing with wetlands, whose presence was of concern to the Army Corps of Engineers, permits from the Town of North Greenbush and the state, and the grueling timetable GE had set for itself.

Feist was impressed by the Tech Park’s working relationship with the town and a concern with detail one would associate with Rensselaer. “The RPI team put in long hours working through the potential environmental concerns,” he says. “They addressed these things more deeply than any other owner we have leased from.”

Wacholder and his staff of four provide what businesses, including those run by newly minted Rensselaer graduates, have called a “security blanket,” stepping in to help line up a phone carrier or suggest where to buy furniture.

Another plus was Rensselaer’s longstanding relationship with GE, where so many alumni work, including Mark Little, now a Global Research senior vice president, who earned his Ph.D. from Rensselaer in 1982. Proximity to Pitney Bowes MapInfo, CCNI, and the Troy campus added to the appeal. GE also wanted a home that was more high-tech than industrial and near attractive buildings and nature, not warehouses and traffic.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.