From downtown Saratoga Springs, it’s a quick 15-minute drive down Route 9 to Stone Break Extension in Malta, where a guarded gate marks the entrance to Fab 8, Global Foundries’ massive new silicon computer chip manufacturing and research facility. (Quick, that is, unless you fail to properly navigate a series of somewhat-disorienting traffic circles along the way.)
It was here that television news trucks gathered Thursday afternoon in front of GlobalFoundries’ complex of expansive buildings – all gleaming silver with blackened windows and orange accents – for an appearance by technology guru and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak on a panel called, “What’s Next for Tech Valley?”
Just before the afternoon event, some 400 attendees poured out of buses that had shuttled them in from off-site lots. “One thing will never change – we’ll never have enough parking spaces,” quipped Fab 8 general manager Eric Choh during introductory remarks, calling the $4 billion facility with 1,600 employees “the biggest private and public development project in the history of New York state.”
While many of the attendees who paid $75 a ticket were there to hear insights from Wozniak, the panel – moderated by Albany Business Review publisher Carolyn Jones – was equal-parts boosterism for “Tech Valley,” a swath of territory that encompasses SUNY Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), GlobalFoundries’ Malta semiconductor facility and a growing number of local technology-related businesses.
“The last few days, I’m just amazed at what I’ve seen here,” said panelist Peter Schultz, co-inventor of the fiber optic technology used in telecommunications. “We’re seeing a lot of major suppliers from Silicon Valley move into the area. I’m here to tell you, this is just the beginning. There are a lot of things that have to be built into the infrastructure to make this thing go.”
Schultz cited relatively low Internet bandwidth as an impediment to local growth (“A lot of people in this area are still on dial-up,” he said), while panelist John Cavalier – former chairman and CEO of East Greenbush software firm MapInfo – said the area was still lacking in the access to venture capital and the “management skills” needed for Silicon Valley-type entrepreneurial growth. “What we need is one major venture capital company to open an office here and get serious about it,” Cavalier said.
Wozniak also spoke about the need for the sort of funding that drives innovation. “Steve Jobs and I went out to a [trade] show when we were two kids without a company or shoelaces…. When we started Apple, we didn’t have any experience or money. Our funder Mike Markkula mentored us. He was basically the mentor that really established Apple.”
But among the region’s assets, Wozniak mentioned the prominence of local universities and educational institutions, something which also drove initial growth in Silicon Valley, he said, as well as the relatively lower cost of living here, which could draw companies away from more expensive places like northern California.
Other panelists cited the quality of life factors that can help local companies attract the employees they need to succeed. “In the past few years we’ve hired a large number of people. One of the assets we have here is [access to] arts and culture,” said panelist Daniel Pickett, CEO of nfrastructure, a Clifton Park firm that provides IT services to companies like GlobalFoundries.
At the end, panelists got what perhaps many of them were there for – a bit of prognostication from the man known affectionately as “the Woz,” a bearded, rotund computer engineer and technology visionary dressed in a black polo shirt and blue sneakers. “I normally don’t like to be a futurist,” he said before waxing at length about the wonders of smartphone technology in response to a question from the audience.
“We’re getting closer and closer to having a little human being that we talk to,” he said of Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant Siri, which accompanies the latest editions of the iPhone. “This thing has the senses of a human being…. It will eventually know my expression. It will think faster every year. One step beyond that, maybe decades from now, [we’ll see] consciousness in a machine – like a person that teaches me everything and guides me through life and might be my best friend.”
Story and photographs by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published on Saratoga Wire, 9/8/12