#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Phil Rugile, Director, LaunchPad Huntington
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Long Island, Strong Innovation Island
Long Island is famous for beaches, bagels and vineyards, but it also has a budding innovation ecosystem. Just outside of New York City, Long Island, Suffolk County in particular is growing into an entrepreneurial powerhouse. Phil Rugile, Director of LaunchPad Huntington, recognized the need for a space to attract talent, host events and build community; he then founded LaunchPad. LaunchPad serves to lower barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. Although LaunchPad has helped to foster many startups, Phil hopes government will continue to lower barriers for entrepreneurship including affordable housing and accessible transportation for all.
Tell me about you. What is your background?
My background is publishing and technology. I started with magazine production with publications, such as People and Time. Ultimately, technology was a driver of putting print out, pushing the industry into digital. In 2010, I co-founded a marketing company that created personalized celebrity content called MYMAG. The partners in that entity then went on to create a non-profit, 100 Urban Entrepreneurs to help entrepreneurs in second-tier markets - Tallahassee, Louisville, Sarasota, etc. - get support and exposure to funding. 100 Urban Entrepreneurs aimed to dismantle urban entrepreneurs’ main obstacles — lack of access to information, capital and professional networks. Participants would pitch in a shark-tank style competition. Winners would get a one-on-one mentoring course for eight weeks and $10,000. We put 60 companies through the program. During that time, I worked with city of Atlanta to propose a design their first incubator. That’s when I started to think about how you use space to attract talent, host events and build community.
How did you get involved with LaunchPad?
From my time serving as an Entrepreneur in Residence at AccelerateLI, I learned to better understand the Long Island business environment and the startup ecosystem. While there, I also saw the need for a coworking space like LaunchPad Huntington and found the perfect space for it. Unfortunately that deal didn’t go through. I then joined eGifter in 2013, which was a startup in the digital gift card space. Together we took over the space I found at Accelerate and EGifter became the anchor tenant for Launchpad. I split my time half as the director of the LaunchPad Huntington and the other as the Human Capital Strategist at eGifter.
We wanted to offer entrepreneurs a low barrier to entry and LaunchPad does that. With eGifter as an anchor tenant along with a dozen corporate, educational and government sponsors, that revenue helps to underwrite the cost of the space. For eGifter, it’s been really beneficial. We have hired people from failed startups and get to meet smart people through all our events; there’s lots of talent in and around LaunchPad.
Can you tell us more about LaunchPad and some of its programming?
We have over 25 companies. We have seen companies come and go, but we have a core group of companies that is pretty much stable. LaunchPad hosts about 80 events a year. Our events range from small meetups of five to ten people, to workshops and conferences. We draw many hundreds of talented people to our space.
What really makes us unique is that we have really integrated right down to town level. We work with local public schools and higher education. We work on initiatives that usually are not in our wheelhouse, such as workforce and career development. Our engagement in these non-traditional initiatives has given LaunchPad street credit. People are looking at workforce development in a different way now. It doesn’t matter the kind of job you are doing; there always needs to be job training.
For example, we have forged a partnership between the Workforce Development Institute and Recruit Long Island to work with local schools and industry to bridge a large education to industry gap. We all care about creating jobs and opportunities; now we can work together on it.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to Long Island’s ecosystem in the last year?
In the last year, there has been a recognition between education and industry that they need to do a better job of communicating. It is subtle, but fundamental. For the purpose of preparing students, educators know they need to work with industry. We have seen this at the university level and we are starting to bring it down to public school level. Together, educators and industry are developing programs with more realistic requirements - not every student is going to go to a four-year school. There are a ton of open jobs that do not get filled each year in part due to a lack of awareness by job seekers. This cooperation needs to happen on a large scale across Long Island to keep these jobs filled and keep them local.
What makes Long Island (or more specifically Suffolk County) an ideal place to start a company?
There are a couple of things that make Long Island an ideal place to start a company. To start, LaunchPad Huntington is here for entrepreneurs in Suffolk County. The County is doing a lot to promote and support new companies and entrepreneurship. The Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency is excellent. The County has provided some tax benefits and other incentives to help with the tax burden for small to midsize companies.
The County has also begun to focus on solving problems like affordable housing. There has been focus on retaining young talent and giving them a place to live. Long Island is an expensive place to live and we want to make sure young entrepreneurs do not have to live with Mom and Dad.
Adding to affordable housing, downtown revitalization projects are happening across the Island. If that’s not enough to keep you entertained, New York City is just a train ride away.
What is the biggest challenge Long Island’s ecosystem still faces?
The biggest challenge is still the cost of doing business. There are initiatives happening, but there is a high tax base. Housing is expensive. More must be done to get people to utilize mass transit, helping to link downtowns to train stations. As compared to other cities, Long Island is 200 miles long. Our density is unlike any traditional city. It is harder to solve our problems, especially when townships do not share services.
How involved are your government representatives in Long Island’s startup space?
We are getting there. At the county level, there is a lot of love and they appreciate what we are doing. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is happy to come and visit LaunchPad.
Even the Town of Huntington helped us move in; they made it feasible for us to build the space. On the state level, there is growing interest in Long Island. However, I don’t think they fully understand the ecosystem here yet. It’s an education process and we are working on it. We don’t work a ton on the federal level, although former Congressman Steve Israel did visit. As a whole, we need to continue to work with lawmakers to educate them about the challenges of our ecosystem.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
I’d like to see more work done especially at state level to provide more incentives to startup companies. We have Startup NY, but we really need help for really small companies. We also need more access to more grants through the Small Business Administration. Often times, the requirements are usually too high. Work needs to be done to make this more accessible.
As a region, Long Island needs to do more to create more funding for people to open LaunchPad-type locations. We discovered people who live in our backyard who are smart, mature business people wanting to start their own company. Spaces like LaunchPad not only helps entrepreneurs, but also the local economy. You need physical space to help the ecosystem. We bring in a broader coalition between government, education and startups, all wrapped up in events. Our entrepreneurs leave LaunchPad at night and go to area restaurants, go shopping and look for entertainment. All that gives back to the local economy.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of Suffolk County?
Here a sample (we have lots!) of companies that will launching soon.
- Howl Alert is application that taps into voice-activated speakers like Alexa. It turns your home device that turns the device into a security system and will alert 911 when requested. Howl is looking to launching in education to help improve school safety.
- GreenFrameWork is a technology provider to the global maritime industry. They are currently focused on launching a licensed technology that will allow large ships to meet new global standards for the reduction in fuel sulphur levels by 2020. Beyond that they are sourcing other proven mechanisms, devices and products which are novel, but already found in other industries, and adjust them by reformulation or mechanical scaling, up to sizes required in real world shipping applications.
- Kantian Skincare products. Neutralyze Anti-Acne Solution is their main product sold exclusively online. Last year they hit a million dollars in sales. The most amazing part is that it is just one full time employee, Jon Klein, the co-founder, working here!
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