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An Interview with Kelly Reardon-Sleicher, Program Director, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programs, at the University of Albany’s Office of Economic Development

When did you join the UAlbany team, and what do you do?


I’m still relatively new here—I’ve been in this role since the end of last summer (2023). I’m still using the “newbie card” to my advantage to meet people and learn more about UAlbany.

I run the I-Corps program and the cohorts and teach as well. I also manage the Innovation Center, our incubator. It’s our main entrepreneurship resource along with I-Corps. The Innovation Center facilitates the NYS Hot Spot program and StartUp NY program. The Hot Spot program, known as Innovate518, is a regional collaboration of incubators offering the Hot Spot incentive to their members. Within that collaboration, I deliver programming relevant to any member company of our affiliate partners.


We have 10 tenants right now at our physical incubator; some of these companies are brand new and some are more mature and looking to graduate into space in the Albany area. They are a mixture of academic spinouts and community-formed teams. My job is to identify the needs of our member companies and find connections to academia and industry to help them grow. At the Innovation Center, we want to help them develop a toolbox of resources in the short time they are with us that will allow them to feel confident on their own, and I-Corps is one of those tools.


What sparked your interest in entrepreneurship, and how did your role with NSF I-Corps evolve?

My father was a fireman for the City of Troy and a self-employed electrician on his days off from the firehouse. I loved to write his invoices on the old carbon paper triplicate machine. He demonstrated how to hustle to earn a good living and support our family.

In 2016, in my prior role at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship, where I worked for 16 years, we applied for an I-Corps Site grant that facilitated our introduction to the Lean Startup methodology. As we became more involved in that approach, I was managing logistics, recruiting, marketing—everything but teaching. I went through Steve Blank’s training in 2017 and 2018; following that, I became an adjunct for the New York City Regional Innovation Node (now known as the New York I-Corps Hub) and then a mentor for a national team—those were great experiences. Following that, I became an adjunct for a National I-Corps teaching team. That was interesting! It can be very intense, but after the first week you get into a groove. The teaching team was great—they are all very gracious and helpful.


What are your plans at U Albany, and what do you like best so far?


We conduct three I-Corps cohorts per year. In the first cohort I ran at UAlbany, one team was community-based, and the rest were from SUNY Fredonia, UAlbany, and SUNY Polytechnic. We are trying to get the deep tech out of the labs and centers and into the public. I’m focused on the faculty and grad students that have interest in a commercialization pathway as a career choice.


We see participants coming from UAlbany’s research strengths—in particular, the atmospheric sciences, life sciences, and nanotech. Semiconductors have become a big interest since the re-unification of the College of Nancoscale, Science and Engineering (CNSE) and the University at Albany. The state has recently invested a lot of money into AI, making it another strength of the university.


I’m really enjoying the independence I have in running this program, as well as the broad support and great team I have around me that’s been helping me settle in. Also, the physical location of where I am is incredible—it’s a brand-new LEED certified building completed just three years ago, next to UAlbany’s uptown campus. The building is the Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship (ETEC) Complex—it was named with entrepreneurship in mind, which shows the forward-thinking of campus leadership and how they value startup culture.  


One of the coolest things about the building is that when you walk in you see an enormous sphere where they project a world map and atmospheric conditions in real time, to showcase Albany’s academic expertise in atmospheric sciences. It’s a teaching tool for higher education and primary education tours as well.


Are you seeing any trends in the kinds of concepts and research that people are coming forward with?


Before COVID, other than blockchain, I wasn’t seeing any trends. During COVID we had an onslaught of ideas sparked by the remote-style education being delivered—so many ideas of how we could improve that experience for different stakeholders. People were coming out of the woodwork to address the needs of students that learn better visually versus those who learn best in a non-visual manner.


How are your I-Corps cohorts at UAlbany going?


Our first few cohorts went well. I have been surprised by the number of Principal Investigators (PIs) that replied to me in my outreach efforts. There’s an unmet need at UAlbany to support individuals considering translational research. We had seven teams finish the cohort, each with more than 20 interviews. The insights they gained were a mix of truly eye-opening and anticipated validation, which is typical. The focus ranged from atmospheric science to cybersecurity to nanoscience and engineering, which is a great reflection of UAlbany’s strengths. We completed another cohort in April of 2024 and we will do one in October. Seeing the teams come through local programs, and their progression from not being able to give a pitch to being able to talk your ear off without mentioning the tech, observing that change over a relatively short period—that’s great to see. 


What areas of focus do you expect to see in upcoming cohorts?


We’ve been focused on where some of the state emphasis has been, on semiconductors, as there’s a significant investment happening in the Albany area. Also, now that UAlbany is reunited with the College for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, it’s been terrific to bring those researchers back into a larger mix of resources and explore translational efforts. I think we will see some of that coming through I-Corps. We are identifying folks who can evangelize about I-Corps in those environments. Additionally, our VP for Research and Economic Development, Thenkurussi (Kesh) Kesavadas, is passionate about entrepreneurship. It helps that he is making it a priority across the board.


What do you think is the biggest surprise about I Corps for participants?


Most often, they don’t expect the rigor. You can tell them until you are blue in the face, but they are never fully prepared until they experience it. Doing the work to get 100 interviews in that short period can be daunting. Teams are also often unprepared for some of the pivots. It’s hard to hear that “your baby is ugly,” as the expression goes. As they are reaching bigger numbers with the higher tally of customer discovery interviews, it can be a big reality check on their original concept. 


What are you reading?


I recently read Subscribed by Tien Tzou, about the subscription economy; it was a great read. I’m now reading the Obama autobiography, A Promised Land.

What do you do for fun?


I’m an animal advocate and I volunteer at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands, NY. I work with dogs every weekend, and I also enjoy time with my two cats. I also have my own creative business with an Etsy store, making clocks from reclaimed lumber and “character” wreaths for the front door. Halloween and Christmas are big! I’m always working a season ahead, so I’m just about to transition from Halloween to Christmas. I work on it weekends and evenings.





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