For this edition of Ask the Expert, we spoke with Heather Hage, President & CEO of the Griffiss Institute in Rome.
Tell us about the Griffiss Institute
Our aim is to develop the next generation of talent and technologies that can advance national security and elevate economic competitiveness for our region, our state, and our nation. We were founded in 2002, and in 2008 we became a core partner to the Air Force Research Laboratory(AFRL), in particular the AFRL Information Directorate, which is known as Rome Lab. That means we find ourselves in a unique position as a nonprofit whose role is to enable the Department of Defense to do what it wants to do better, stronger, and faster, working in partnership with academic institutions and industry.
What is your background?
I went to Albany Law School as everyone in my family did, but I never saw myself as a lawyer. One day,I met the then-VP of Technology Transfer for the SUNY system and asked him what he did.He said, “I am the businessperson who goes into the lab and helps scientists and engineers who have big ideas turn their inventions into products and services that will change the world.” I said,“This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.”I grew up in tech transfer at the SUNY Research Foundation for 17 years, starting in May 2004 as an intern and working my way through lots of different roles. My last post was VP for Industry and External Affairs, where my job was to build partnerships between organizations that could do groundbreaking, cutting-edge work together. Then I came here.
That was May 2021. Tell us about your first year on the job.
It’s been an amazing year. My first day was the same day that everyone who had been working remotely converged on the site of the new Innovare Advancement Center. Griffiss Institute had been more of a back-office support system. Now, we were pivoting to be a destination space for scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, outside the fence of the AFRL. Opening an innovation hub that is supposed to be a place where people physically interact with each other and do hands-on research is a hard thing to do. Looking back, it was almost a blessing we did it in the middle of a pandemic because we were able to learn how to manage this facility when we were at 25 percent capacity. Now we are at 100 percent capacity.On the outcome side, I’m most proud of expanding our partnership with AFRL, building new programs and new lines of effort. This includes launching ourHUSTLE Defense Accelerator for startups pursuing national security technologies in our four core technical areas—artificial intelligence and machine learning; cyber; quantum; and unmanned aerial systems.
And looking ahead?
We have three big areas we’re going to focus on. One is enabling and celebrating entrepreneurship in the Mohawk Valley. That means building our patent portfolio, developing the IP portfolio for Rome Lab, identifying other partners who can help augment our defense mission, and leveraging our gorgeous new facility and laboratories to enable small companies that wouldn’t otherwise have access to those kinds of specialized resources. Second is to deepen and focus our academic engagement. We have relationships with over 200 universities in 20 countries but this year, you will see us doing bigger projects with a smaller number of institutions, those that have strong alignment with our technical areas and a focus on national security. Third is continuing to develop our facility as a destination for world-leading scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. We’ve also set a couple of broad goals for the five-year period we’re in now. One is to bring on 100 new and diverse partners to help us push boundaries in those four technical areas. Second is to build 100 entrepreneurial ventures, which is a crazy aggressive but achievable goal. Third is to elevate by 10 percent our intellectual leadership in those four areas.
Discuss your talent development role.
We take it as our responsibility to help train the next generation, which is why our programs focus as early as 6th grade. We have STEM camps for high schoolers and internships that run from undergraduate up to graduate school. We are very adept at recruiting in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics. In a given year we get as many as 800 applications from students all over the country saying, “I want to come to the Mohawk Valley.” I see an opportunity for the manufacturing world and us to collaborate in building a broader community in which folks whom we home-grow or attract feel at home with other likeminded technical and entrepreneurial people.
What would you like to say to your colleagues?
I feel so strongly every day that there is a whole new current of energy moving through the tech community in upstate New York. I believe that if we can leave behind the mindset of scarcity that has plagued us for the past 30 years in trying to emerge from this Rust Belt economy, and if we can instead keep our heads up and figure out how to work together to converge our resources in directions of growing our companies, of helping each other, upstate New York can be the next nonmetro tech hub and we can contribute to building a better world in ways we have not yet imagined.