Posted on Feb 27, 2006

After meeting with Harry Apkarian recently, Brian Selchick ripped apart his business strategy and changed the direction of his company.

The 83-year-old entrepreneur has that effect on people.

“He pushed me to think outside the box,” said Selchick, 21, a Union College senior who heads eWired Auctions in Albany, a three-person auction agency that specializes in fund raising for charities.

Apkarian told Selchick he was thinking too small and focusing too locally.

“I've gone back and evaluated my entire business plan,” Selchick said.

That's why Apkarian was picked to be Union College's first Entrepreneur in Residence. It's the Schenectady college's latest push to play a pivotal role in the growth of the region's high-tech sector.

Apkarian is part of an overall strategy at Union College to put entrepreneurship front and center. Union is weaving entrepreneurship into much of its coursework. There are courses focused on entrepreneurship, such as “The Mind of the Entrepreneur,” and “Entrepreneurship in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.” Entrepreneurship is also being discussed in courses in the classics, political science, physics, engineering and English.

Apkarian was brought in to take those lessons beyond the classroom. The school picked a person who has played a pivotal role in creating Tech Valley long before it was labeled as such.

Apkarian: good pick
“He's the quintessential entrepreneur in the region,” said Michael Wacholder, director of the Rensselaer Technology Park, which Apkarian helped start more than two decades ago.

Apkarian is a co-founder of Mechanical Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: MKTY), formed in 1961 as a GE spinoff. The company is now developing a micro fuel cell that will power small electronic devices such as PDAs and cell phones.

That experience alone makes Apkarian a good selection for the voluntary Entrepreneur in Residence position.

“He's the region's technology pioneer,” Wacholder said. “Why? Because he fundamentally represented the earliest of spinouts. His first venture, MTI, was spun out of GE long before it was the thing to do. He set the course.”

Apkarian was the obvious choice for Union's new post, said Harold Fried, director of Union College's Center for the Analysis of Productivity and Entrepreneurship, which oversees the new Entrepreneur in Residence program.

“I think it's clearly critical to have this program grounded in some real-world experience and that's what Harry brings to the table,” Fried said.

Apkarian is credited with helping to build the region's tech sector. Besides Mechanical Technology, which he co-founded 41 years ago, he counseled the founders of two other high-profile companies long before they went public–MapInfo Corp. (Nasdaq: MAPS), the region's largest software developer, and Plug Power Inc. (Nasdaq: PLUG), a fuel-cell developer in Latham.

And he was instrumental in starting the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute incubator in Troy and the Schenectady County Community Business Center. Wacholder said Apkarian invented Rensselaer's incubator.

And he hasn't stopped starting things. It was because of his involvement in advising TransTech Systems Inc., a transportation-product manufacturer in Schenectady, that led his being asked to run the company.

Apkarian is a straight-talker
Apkarian will now be on campus several times a month to meet with students. So far, he's met with six students who are either running or plan to run four businesses, including three Internet-related businesses.

“I thought these guys were clever,” he said.

And they are, but he doesn't take it easy on the students.

“He doesn't mince words,” Selchick said.

Josh DeBartolo, 20, of Project Corvis, an online book exchange for area colleges, said Apkarian is methodical in his approach to business plans.

“He went through some key points that he looks for in a business plan,” he said. “He was tough, but it was helpful.”

One student recently came to a meeting with Apkarian with a 30-page business plan, about 27 pages too long.

“No investor is going to read all that detail,” Apkarian told him. “Get down to the key things. What's your core competency? Are you sure there's a market? Have you checked what your competition is? How much money do you need?”

Apkarian said those rapid-fire questions comes from his experience in the past. He winces when he looks at some of his earlier business plans.

“When I go back and look at what I prepared, how did we ever succeed as a business?” Apkarian said, laughing. “I was so naive.”

Apkarian likes Union's focus
Apkarian said he likes Union's focus these days.

“Innovation and entrepreneurialism are the buzzwords these days,” he said.

Apkarian said Union is working to get a piece of the business recognition that Rensselaer has long received and the state University at Albany has more recently garnered.

The school has made some inroads. Last year, SuperPower Inc., Union College and Schenectady County Community College secured $5 million to train a work force that SuperPower said it needs as it ramps up production of its superconducting cables.

A similar program is being created with CardioMag Imaging Inc., a Schenectady developer of a non-invasive system used to identify patients with coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular conditions.

“Union is doing some things the others haven't done,” Apkarian said. “They're establishing bona fide industrial relationships. They're creating jobs.”

Apkarian, in a sense, is also creating jobs by helping entrepreneurs build companies.

Selchick said after his meeting with Apkarian he was making changes to his company.

“I'm going to bring on additional staff,” Selchick said, “and attack the market share I didn't even know existed.”