Vice President for Economic Development
Executive Dean, Center for Entrepreneurship
Helping to Grow Long Island’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
The driving force that led Mark Lesko to become an ardent and active supporter of entrepreneurial endeavors has much in common with the very group that he assists: he saw a need and developed a way to address it.
While serving as Supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven, a position he assumed in 2009, Lesko also became a regional leader on the issue of economic development and was part of Governor Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council for Long Island.
He also played a role in the formation of Accelerate Long Island—a collaboration of the major universities and research institutions on Long Island to spur the commercialization of research.
“Everybody was talking about how we could save the remnants of the defense contractor industry,” he said. “Looking at other regions that were similar to ours in the country, I was convinced that we needed to grow the next generation of our economy through start-up companies and entrepreneurs.”
This decision led him to become more deeply involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, resigning from his elected role in 2012 to serve as the first executive director of Accelerate Long Island, where he is now Chairman of the Accelerate NY Seed Fund Investment Review Committee and also a board member. It was through this connection that he became involved with CEBIP, joining its advisory board in 2013. Then, just three years ago, he joined Hofstra University as its Vice President for Economic Development and Executive Dean at the Center for Entrepreneurship.
“There is lots of entrepreneurial spirit at Hofstra,” Mark said, ticking off some of the projects he’s been involved with: a Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge competition with $25,000 in prizes, a student-run record label, and a business development center. “I also started a clinical program in the law school, where we represent real start-up company clients,” he said. “So, we have law students serving as lawyers representing start-ups.”
The Center for Entrepreneurship is also expanding. Not only is it launching programs that would focus on underserved entrepreneurial communities but it is also part of the START UP NY program. Next year, the Center will also be moving into a brand-new state of the art incubator.
The need for a strong entrepreneurial support network is indisputable, since start-ups face both geographic and financial challenges. Unlike in New York City, where much of the entrepreneurial activity happens within a square-mile box consisting of the Flatiron District, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, Long Island covers a wider area, reducing the chances for those serendipitous encounters between entrepreneurs and potential cofounders or funders, Mark pointed out. “The other challenge is that there are very few ways to access early-stage capital or early-stage investment on Long Island —maybe two or three sources of capital. It’s tough for an early-stage startup because you’re sitting in a long line waiting to pitch the handful of investors that are active on Long Island.”
This is where programs like CEBIP play an important role by helping to facilitate connections. “CEBIP has emerged as one of the pillars of this young ecosystem of entrepreneurs on Long Island and David is a leader in the ecosystem,” said Mark. “He’s got those few early-stage funders on speed dial and is relentless in making everyone aware of his clients. He has established a lot of credibility, so if he calls about a company, you know you should listen.”
Mark also enjoys the opportunity to guide CEBIP clients on their path to gaining financial backing. “As a group, the advisory board works with David and the CEBIP staff to vet new clients as well as help existing clients to develop their pitches and their business models,” he explained. “One of CEBIP’s goals is to prepare companies so they are at a level where they can pitch to the Long Island Angel Networks and other seed and angel level investors. It’s a challenge because a lot of these technologists and researchers like to innovate in secret. But they really need to initiate discussions with potential industry partners like utilities, because if they aren’t aware of what the marketplace is looking for and what the customers are looking for, then they are really taking a shot in the dark. That’s one of the benefits of our advisory board because we do have representatives from utilities to get that input real time when we meet with the companies.”
It’s apparent to anyone who talks to Mark that he finds his work with entrepreneurs and start-up companies very rewarding. “It’s always exciting when you go to a CEBIP meeting and you meet this new company brimming with confidence and optimism and excited about their technology, and you think, ‘Wow, that’s a neat idea!’ It renews your own sense of optimism,” adding, “The CEBIPs of the world are like maternity wards where everybody is happy and there’s all sorts of new babies.”
But there’s no denying building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is a long-term process that requires strong partners, he noted. “In my view, the region should double down on organizations like CEBIP, the Long Island Angel Network, Accelerate Long Island and LaunchPad Long Island because without that kind of glue or connective tissue, the entrepreneurial ecosystem won’t develop. We need that to foster a culture of entrepreneurship here on Long Island.”