Ask the Expert: Ben Verschueren

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For this edition of Ask the Expert, we spoke with Ben Verschueren, Executive Director of Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR). Ben took on the position in August 2023 after a distinguished career in industry. Here, he introduces himself and shares his vision for NYSTAR’s future.


Tell us about yourself.

I’m a technologist by background. I have a Masters in Computer Science degree. I started at GE’s Research Center right out of undergrad. I worked at GE for 23 years, mostly in Niskayuna, although I did a few years at NBC Universal. I was always on the innovation side of things. My last role at GE, and probably the most relevant to this job, was establishing the Forge Lab, which focuses on taking cutting-edge research and applying it to industrial use cases. It was a very entrepreneurial lab within the Research Center.

When GE was starting to break up, it seemed the natural time to make a change, so I took a job at Fluence, which does grid-scale energy storage. I ran their global labs for about a year and a half.

Then I learned about the NYSTAR job, applied, and got it.


Why NYSTAR?

Three main things interested me. One was the breadth. GE Research innovated across everything GE did, which touched so many industries and technologies. Even though I have a background in computer science, I am very technology-curious and really enjoyed getting a taste of that breadth. Within a few weeks of starting at NYSTAR, I found myself talking about fashion technology, gaming technology and quantum computing in the same conversation.

Second, there was always a part of me that wanted to try out the public sector. This felt like a great way to make that shift. The interview process really reinforced that. Everyone I talked to really believes in what they’re doing—making a difference, doing it for the good of New York State.

Third, Fluence was fully remote, and I am not a fully remote kind of guy.


How will your background shape your role at NYSTAR?

I do think I am bringing a different perspective, from two standpoints. One, being from industry, and the other is I’m a technologist to my core. It’s a different way of thinking when you’ve been there and understand what it takes to develop an innovation. The questions I ask: people’s faces light up. “You actually understand how this works! Let’s go a level deeper into what we’re actually trying to do!” I do think that’s relevant, given my vision for NYSTAR.


Tell us about that vision.

I can’t think of a better time to be in innovation, with everything the federal government is doing with things like the CHIPS Act and New York’s two designated National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engines. I think NYSTAR has a phenomenal foundation of an innovation ecosystem—70 assets spanning universities, incubators, hot spots, MEP Centers. I think our next chapter is, first, around how we leverage all of that with a very strategic focus. What are the strategic industries, the huge opportunities, and how do we use that existing infrastructure as an exponent of the “why New York” question.

Part two is, what are some of the things we need to add to continue to grow? The journey, if you are small business, is death by a thousand cuts. It might be technology problems, protecting your IP, your freedom to operate, legal services, setting up payroll [or] scaling up manufacturing. Our existing ecosystem hits a lot of those, but what is the next set of barriers we can take down to help small businesses succeed and make New York sticky, so they stay as they continue to grow? Some of that is going to be larger thoughts around specific industries such as semiconductors or green economy. How do we lean into those larger thoughts? How do we help anyone who is on that journey? At the end of the day, it is just “let’s make New York the best place to do innovation and entrepreneurship, period.”


What else should we know about you?

I’m probably the least territorial guy you’ll ever meet. I’m not an empire builder. I’m not trying to make NYSTAR the center of the world. I think NYSTAR needs to work effectively across all of Empire State Development and other government agencies. We all need to collaborate so we can double down on the areas we really want to double down on.

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