Crain's NYB
January 6, 2003
CUNY hatching incubator for design firms in Queens
East River Studios first of 7 industry-specific centers to nurture businesses

Business owners Kenny Greenberg and Dino Valaoritis aren't your average neonatal candidates for an incubator. Mr. Greenberg has owned architectural and theatrical lighting design firm Krypton Neon Inc. in Long Island City, Queens, for 22 years. Mr. Valaoritis started to manufacture high-end furniture in 1997, and also runs a firm that helps designers manufacture and market their products.

But then, East River Studios at LaGuardia Community College in Queens-the first of as many as seven incubators that the City University of New York is planning-is no more typical than its first two members, Messrs. Greenberg and Valaoritis.

"We're not going to be a venture capital hotel," says Mr. Valaoritis. "We're about getting things done."

The two men have been chosen as guinea pigs for a $7.5 million state-funded effort that formally does not begin at LaGuardia until February and opens elsewhere months later. Along with offering the usual ingredients so vital to startups-everything from space to business planning and budgeting advice-East River Studios aims to do more.

Like the other planned CUNY incubators, LaGuardia's will focus on one industry, design businesses. What it will do is gather a cluster of mostly Long Island City-based designers of everything from lighting and furniture to Web sites and encourage them to collaborate on product development, sourcing, manufacturing and marketing with help from CUNY professors.

East River Studios will have equipment to build prototypes, and shared space to allow some manufacturing. Nonmanufacturing members will be expected to help in marketing efforts. The firms could all be customers of one another.

East River is also in negotiations with some of the city's design schools to have one join the incubator to provide student labor and professorial insights on marketing and product development. Design companies would bring faculty and students up-to-date with the real world.

So far, only Messrs. Greenberg and Valaoritis have been tapped to join the incubator. A third resident and five to 10 nonresident members will be chosen for the pilot phase when the incubator opens in February.

"We're looking for companies that can work cooperatively, need services we offer, and can offer services we need," explains Jack Rainey, director of the incubator program at LaGuardia. "All the member companies will be expected to pitch in."

Space in LaGuardia's incubator will be free at first, with market rental rates envisioned for the future. The first phase of the incubator will take up 4,000 square feet in an existing LaGuardia building. The next phase, beginning 18 months later, will open an additional 25,000 square feet.

Messrs. Greenberg and Valaoritis have been in on the design of the incubator since the idea went into development in September 2001. "My role has been as a demonstration project," says Mr. Greenberg. "It made sense to have non-startups (established companies) before the basic services were in place."

Mr. Greenberg, whose company's sales are $250,000 annually, is itching to enlarge his current 350-square-foot studio with another 1,500 square feet at the incubator. He will also get access to shared space for major projects, such as his recent assembly of two giant neon dragons for the current Broadway production of Flower Drum Song.

He also plans to collaborate with Mr. Valaoritis' furniture company, Siena Design, now that it has branched out into lamps. "I can provide lighting sources to Siena, as well as designing electronic control circuits for them," says Mr. Greenberg.

In turn, Siena Design, which also produces its own inventions, has mass-production skills that could be useful to Mr. Greenberg, who wants to market some of his own electronic creations.

Siena Design, a $400,000 business, still has some startup features. "We're still identifying market opportunities. We're in a rapid state of formation," Mr. Valaoritis says.

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