As important as a new Bills stadium was for Buffalo, the just-finished state budget included another benefit that could be far more significant for Western New York: As Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged when she unveiled her spending plan, the budget includes money that will help make the University at Buffalo – and with it, the region – a powerhouse in innovation and research.
That’s a big win on its own, but it could also leverage two federal bonanzas –$100 million from the Economic Development Administration Regional Challenge Grant program and a designation as a $1 billion tech hub under the pending U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. Each could bolster the region’s engineering/tech sector by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Those tantalizing – and very real – possibilities are separate from the $68 million the state is providing UB to construct a new building for its engineering program. The university will have to raise an additional $34 million to complete the $102 million project. SUNY Stony Brook won a similar grant. The goal, Hochul said, is to help the two flagship universities attract $1 billion each in mostly federal research funding by 2030.
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Separately, but interwoven, is UB’s ambition to become one of the nation’s Top 25 public research universities by bolstering its doctoral programs and focusing on groundbreaking research. Together, these programs feed the tech economy already growing in Western New York, including M&T Bank’s new tech center in Seneca One tower.
M&T Chairman and CEO René F. Jones recently said the bank’s tech hub is showing positive results and helping to create a broader tech community. That community is energized by 43North, the business plan competition that also has offices in the tower, along with its eight startups that won prize money in the competition last October.
Seneca One is also home to Cleveland-based AML RightSource, which plans to hire 363 new employees in Buffalo by 2026, nearly tripling its local workforce. In South Buffalo, meanwhile, Tesla continues to work on its advanced solar roofing model, a challenging project that, despite frustrations, could make Buffalo a star in a durable 21st century industry.
That’s the hopeful path we’re on, and last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer came to Erie County to show what could lie ahead. With UB President Satish Tripathi, he pushed their efforts to win one of the $100 million tech hubs the federal challenge grant will fund.
The region is one of about 60 finalists for 20 grants and, as Schumer said, it is well-positioned to be a hub for advanced manufacturing and tech companies. UB is ready: Tripathi observed that the university already has experts and research in all the growing tech areas, from artificial intelligence and data science to robotics, cybersecurity and biomedical sciences.
Schumer also is working to rally support for the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which he introduced last year. The legislation would create 10 $1 billion tech hubs around the country and Schumer is optimistic about this region’s chances of winning one.
The Buffalo-Rochester area certainly fits the bill’s goal of funneling federal investment for research and development into regions that haven’t had that kind of funding and that will benefit the most from it. Differing bills have passed in the House and Senate but have yet to be reconciled.
All of this points the way toward a new industrial/tech/engineering economy for Buffalo, but backstopping it all is the essential effort to put UB in the top ranks of American research universities. The record of such universities is to serve as petri dishes for the high-tech companies and workers at which this region is aiming.
That’s the significance of Hochul’s success in helping UB’s engineering program reach higher. It’s like the rings from a pebble thrown into a pond. Only this was a boulder.
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