Noa Conger Simons wants to grow the Albany region's startup ecosystem

Wednesday, May 10, 2023


Noa Conger Simons has worked in venture capital internationally, but brought her experience back to the Hudson Valley where she grew up.

Conger Simons leads the Upstate Capital Association, an organization that seeks to improve deal flow by connecting investors with companies seeking funding. It’s a statewide association that includes angel investors, venture capital investors, growth-equity investors, private-equity investors, financiers and asset-based lenders.

As part of her work, she gets an overhead view of the state’s startup scene. Conger Simons shared her thoughts on the status of the Capital Region’s innovation ecosystem and what would take it to the next level.

How did you get into this kind of work? I worked in a family office for over a decade out in the Boston area, so I learned the venture capital business from my mentor, who owned that family office. And we started a venture capital fund in Shanghai together. I ran a couple of companies for him and had a couple of potential startup, deep tech, research science projects with him before he retired, and I came back to the Hudson Valley.

What’s your take on the Capital Region startup scene? I think the Capital Region is interesting. There are certainly a lot of smart people, a lot of the ingredients that it seems like people need to have healthy and thriving innovation economies. What I observe, though, is that the silos are still pretty strong, and that the ability to really work together has not been exploited as much as it has been in other places.

I do think there’s a real lack of funding also, and not just early stage capital from private investors. [As an example,] I think government support has made Buffalo very strong through the Buffalo Billion. Likewise, Luminate and Grow New York and 76 West each have their own sort of pools of capital that sponsored and funded those accelerator, business-attraction competitions.

The Capital Region hasn’t had that kind of support and that kind of cohesive coming together to build something that I’ve seen in those other regions around particular investment theses or particular innovation theses.

Let’s say funding wasn’t a problem here. What else would we need? I think you need leadership, right? Money is great. But if you don’t have people, then money doesn’t go anywhere. So I think the region needs people who have the connections and have the ethos around collaboration as a central principle for a successful, thriving ecosystem.

Who’s the ideal candidate to lead our innovation community? I don’t think there’s one archetype. I think that those people can come from different places. I think probably academia is less likely just from a likely standpoint, in my experience. I think that person needs to also have credibility with the business and innovation and investor community, so it’s somebody who has the networks and the connections and understands the competing needs of different groups to be able to put things together in ways that makes sense.

You can look at the structure of how 43 North [in western New York] came to be. They engaged with a guy named Jordan Levy, who was from Buffalo, had deep ties to the region, was a successful venture capitalist with national and international ties. And he came together with local people who live there and who wanted to take this portion of the Buffalo Billion dollars that they had and put it to work in a business attraction vehicle, and they built this competition that has had a lot of successful results.

Startup founders here often say they have to look beyond the region for funding opportunities. How much of an issue is getting an investor from outside the area? There’s a saying that he who writes the check makes the rules, and so one of the issues that you run into is poaching. Where if you’re writing a big enough check, you probably swing a big enough hammer that if you have a desire for that company to relocate, and they don’t have a strong enough strategic reason to be in this region, that they’ll get pulled somewhere else.

I think it’s absolutely an attraction game to have professional institutional investors looking at companies in upstate New York overall, particularly in the Capital Region, where you don’t have high-flying success stories to tell like you do in Buffalo. It’s very much an attraction game, so what you want to do is attract the right investors who aren’t going to take those companies and pull them into other places where they’re headquartered.

One of the things that I heard about, that my impression was at least, that it was quite successful is in Michigan. Michigan state government paid the Michigan Venture Association, an analogous organization to Upstate Capital, to manage a program where they recruited institutional investors to hire and maintain an office and keep a staff person on site in their city or town. Michigan did this across all of Michigan, and had maybe five or 10 investors with offices in Boston and Silicon Valley, New York and Austin, wherever, and then said, “If you open an office and have a person who sits in that office, every day, we’re going to pay the salary of that person, and we’ll give you the rent.” And so they basically made it very easy for those investment organizations to say yes. I think about that as a strategy for investor attraction.

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