University of Rochester owns one of the highest energy lasers for inertial confinement fusion research, the OMEGA laser. The school has been central to the development of new technologies.
Like many winter days in upstate New York, it's cold and gray in Rochester. But today feels darker than usual because when we woke up this morning, we learned that Eastman Kodak was filing for bankruptcy. We could all feel it coming, but it was still a shock. There is no conversation in Rochester today that won't include the decline of Kodak. Even in the line at the coffee shop this morning everyone here is talking about it.
But behind the headlines, there's something else going on in here and it's happening in small cities all over the country. Much of the role that industry used to play in innovation has now shifted to the universities.
Kodak was once the largest employer in this town. Today it's the University of Rochester. In the past 10 years the school and its Medical Research Center have grown remarkably, not only from new students, but from a dramatic expansion of funded research. Some of that research has found its way into new patents, new companies and new economic activity.
Every time I turn around it seems like there's a new building in the medical center. There are gleaming spaces full of people in lab coats and blinking racks of computers. From new medicines, to computer chips — it feels like it's all being invented here. People walk together with their heads down in deep discussion and you can just sense them going places no one has ever gone before.
There was a time when large companies maintained these kinds of research efforts on their own. In the 1950s and 1960s Bell Labs invented things like transistors, satellite communications and they even helped to discover the big bang. Those days are pretty much gone. Biotech companies still have labs, but the free-flowing open-ended exploration of ideas is really coming from universities now.
For cities like mine, these transitions are painful. Jobs are being lost as the old industrial players decline. Everyone is looking for something new to drive their economies, and the place they're looking is the schools.
The news from Kodak makes this a really sad day in Rochester. Friends of mine have lost their jobs and I can see how hard it is for them every day.
But I have hope. From the vantage of my hometown we're all in the midst of a profound transition. For better or worse our universities are no longer the ivy-covered cloisters of sheltered learning. Instead they have become dynamos spinning out new knowledge, new technologies, new jobs and new hope for the future.