June 29, 2013
Can Buffalo find a guy like Alain Kaloyeros?
By: Tom Precious
Source: The Buffalo News
ALBANY – Nearly 40 years ago, a young Alain Kaloyeros served
alongside Christian militia forces fighting against Hezbollah troops in
northern Lebanon. If you talk to him today, he will show you the scars
on his arms from one of the battles.
Now, far from those street
battles in and around Beirut, Kaloyeros serves on a very different
cutthroat battlefield, where scientists at the nation’s leading
universities compete to develop cutting-edge technology that will
transform lives – and make money. So far, Kaloyeros, the chief
executive officer at the State University at Albany’s College of
Nanoscale Science and Engineering, is winning that battle spectacularly. Over 20 years, he has – single-handedly, some say – transformed the
nanoscience school dubbed CNSE into a multibillion dollar empire with
more than 3,100 scientists, researchers, professors and students, as
well as a growing national reputation.
“He is a visionary,” Gov.
Andrew M. Cuomo said of Kaloyeros recently. “He sees big ideas. He also
gets them done and gets them done extraordinarily well. He has been a
real gift to this state.”
Unknown to most New Yorkers,
Kaloyeros is seen as a template for the kind of person that college
presidents need to find and then unleash to attract companies to their
centers of learning – which is just what Cuomo wants to see happen at
the University at Buffalo and other State University of New York
campuses all across the state.
Cuomo and the State Legislature
recently agreed on a plan that will establish tax-free zones for
companies that locate on or near college campuses. The governor believes
dangling a gift of no state taxation for 10 years will lure companies
from all over the nation to unused lands at college campuses.
for the idea to work, it’s going to take far more than just another
corporate tax-break program that has been tried in different forms over
It will take visionary leadership – which, Kaloyeros said, has been lacking at some other SUNY campuses.
So should SUNY campuses go looking for leaders like Kaloyeros?
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of Kaloyeros’ earliest backers, thinks so – while worrying that Kaloyeros is one of a kind.
“If colleges could find someone like him, it would be wonderful, but I suspect it will be difficult,” Silver said.
Roots in the Middle East
For one thing, it would be hard to find any world-class scientist with Kaloyeros’ life history.
Kaloyeros (pronounced Ah-lain Kal-e-air-oes) was a young man when his
native Lebanon erupted in civil war. And like many young Lebanese
Christians, Kaloyeros found himself in the middle.
He got some of his battle training from the Israeli army.
“We were the good guys, honestly,” he said.
The same could not be said, of course, of the Hezbollah enemies he fought.
“The conversion by sword is fundamental to them,” he said.
Kaloyeros left the battlefield and returned to college in Lebanon.
After graduating, he moved to the United States to get a doctorate at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Few then had ever heard of the field he studied, and few still have.
It’s called experimental condensed matter physics.
You might call it making big things out of small things.
from the moment he arrived at the University at Albany after getting
his doctorate, Kaloyeros has been doing just that, growing a program in
nanoscale technology – the manipulation of matter at the atomic and
subatomic level – into a fast-growing school.
Silver, the most
consistent backer of Kaloyeros at the Capitol, recalls the skinny
scientist coming to him 20 years ago for $5 million in state funding to
build a clean room to do research on computer chips.
didn’t know then what a clean room was, but Kaloyeros sold him on that
funding request. “He took that and created a legend,” Silver said.
The role of ‘communicator’
then, Kaloyeros, now 57, has used a combination of arm-twisting,
self-confidence, charm, carnival barking and political skill to
transform a campus that Playboy once dubbed the best party college in
America into a place where scientists are engaged in research that will
end up making billions of dollars in profits for their companies.
And he’s done it without any of the tax breaks that Cuomo now plans to shower on the environs of the state’s college campuses.
Kaloyeros has used his scientific background and considerable
salesmanship skills to persuade top state official after top state
official to pour money into his research and development center at the
University at Albany – which in turn has lured scores of corporate
partners to the campus.
The state has pumped more than $1.3
billion during the past 20 years into the nanotech school to build
gleaming, state-of-the-art buildings and to buy the expensive equipment
that fills them.
Obviously, it takes some serious lobbying work to
win that much state funding, but if you call Kaloyeros a lobbyist, he
will cut you off. He prefers the term “communicator.”
who has worked under five governors, is not shy about communicating his
respect for his current boss. In an interview, he mentioned Cuomo 28
times, and there are giant photographs of Cuomo, along with President
Obama, hanging in a rotunda at the college.
Silver said Kaloyeros is equally adept at wooing politicians and corporate titans.
“They want to be with him, and he’s the attraction,” Silver said of the 300 company partners working with the Albany facility.
who’s who of global companies has invested more than $17 billion in and
around the Albany SUNY campus. The college provides the space and tools
companies might not otherwise be able to afford while assisting with
the new technology and working to ensure corporate secrets don’t fall
prey to corporate espionage.
“We are truly running the business of
academics,” Kaloyeros said of his ever-growing empire of clean rooms
and state-purchased “tools” that cost tens of millions of dollars apiece
and which fierce industry competitors use nearly side-by-side.
from IBM and Intel to Samsung and Tokyo Electron use those machines to
develop new ways to put more and more information on smaller and smaller
chips used in cellphones, computers, cars and any assortment of
After touring the facility last year, President Obama
was impressed. “Now I want what’s happening in Albany to happen across
the country,” he said.
Kaloyeros sees hope for UB
Cuomo and the State Legislature want it happening all across New York, at least.
if other SUNY campuses are to morph into economic powerhouses like the
one in Albany, they’ll have to change their ways, Kaloyeros said.
dismisses talk that his facility got special treatment and says
campuses like UB were given much more money two decades ago to develop
centers to attract businesses. Gov. George E. Pataki in 2002 came to
Buffalo with $50 million in state support for the University at
Buffalo’s high-tech Center of Excellence.
“The way the other
campuses chose to spend their investments didn’t produce the results we
went about investing,” Kaloyeros said.
Many SUNY campuses have
not yet awakened to the need not only to use their assets to teach
students but also to build a local economy to keep those students from
leaving the state after graduation, he said.
retraining,” he said of SUNY campuses. “I think they send lobbyists to
Albany to ask for money as opposed to approaching things in a strategic,
For instance, he noted, UB years ago had the same opportunities as Albany but took the wrong approach.
way we started here was we had a core group of corporations,” he said.
“Buffalo was more, ‘Let’s build it, have professors run it and see what
companies we can attract, which is exactly what Andrew Cuomo is trying
to avoid with the Buffalo Billion by having the companies come in
Today, Kaloyeros believes UB is better positioned.
is a part of a team. It’s not just the University of Buffalo. The
governor’s billion wasn’t handed to the University of Buffalo. It was
designed to fund a grass-roots effort from the region,” he said.
is by no means the only SUNY institution that Kaloyeros criticizes. He
also knocks the University at Albany for wasting money “on things that
are not part of the core mission,” such as a new football stadium,
fountains and entrance ways, while cutting nonscience programs such as
French that, he said, create well-rounded students.
Worse yet, he said, many SUNY campuses have their eyes trained on Albany instead of focusing on the changing, wider world.
didn’t get fat and lazy,” he said. “It was complacency, expecting state
resources and relying on them for maintaining and running the campuses.
It’s a new world now. It’s the innovation economy, and they need to
re-adjust. … It is the Darwin thing. It’s not the strongest of the
species nor the most intelligent that survive. It’s the ones most
adaptable to change.”
The new world of academics
Change is a constant at Kaloyeros’ campus, and he likes it that way.
talks of a different culture at the College of Nanoscale Science and
Engineering, where professors are judged on such factors as how many
patents they get each year or how many hours they spend in community
college and high school classrooms, teaching and looking for future
nanoscience students. “The business of academics exists as never
before,” he said.
“Even the guy who runs the place,” Kaloyeros
said of himself, “doesn’t sit in his office like the typical dean or
vice president and expect people to come and tell them what they’ve
done. I’m as much in the trenches, if not more, as the rest of them.”
for sure. Kaloyeros has 13 patents to his name. And every year,
researchers at his school get 300 to 400 patents. Of course, patents
And Kaloyeros’ success has raised a question: Does
he kowtow too much to the for-profit interests of corporations over what
is supposed to be the traditional university mission of educating
Kaloyeros has an answer for those who think SUNY
presidents and professors now should be worried about having to be
economic developers as well as educators.
“We’re expanding the
mission,” he said. “No one from the governor on down went to campuses
and said you’ve got to stop teaching or stop doing basic research. What
he’s saying to them is that, in addition to those functions, you have a
mission … of also helping build an ecosystem to train the kids in
relevant fields. He’s saying it’s time to make yourself relevant to the
21st century and be creative and entrepreneurial, because it’s a
question of survival.”
For his part, Kaloyeros has not just
survived, but thrived. He is the highest salaried state worker, earning
more than $1.3 million a year. That salary, paid by the state and the
SUNY Research Foundation, is more than seven times Cuomo’s, but he does
not receive the perks that other top SUNY officials enjoy, such as
housing or cars and drivers.
Kaloyeros makes as much as some
corporate executives, and he drives like one, too. He owns a Ferrari
F458 Spider, which sells for a base list price of $258,000, and happily
shows off a picture of it on his smartphone.
The license plate on his Ferrari reads: “Dr. Nano.”
Perhaps that’s because the “NANO GEEK” license plate was already taken: It’s on his Range Rover.
four-wheeled displays of wealth are not exactly commonplace in
academia, but those who have watched the nanoscience school grow under
Kaloyeros’ guidance say he’s earned his reward. After all, he attracted
$215 million in outside research grants last year alone.
school’s success, there’s talk in Albany that the state soon will move
to break off his facility from the University at Albany to make it
SUNY’s 65th campus – run by Kaloyeros and a board dominated by Cuomo
loyalists – in time for next year’s elections. To hear Kaloyeros tell
it, though, the nanotech school is already a breed apart.
“From Day 1, we’ve done better than the other campuses,” he said. “I know how to invest the money.”