Blakely's been cultivating this expertise from a young age. He attended the University of Buffalo where he earned dual bachelor degrees in biology and psychology in two years. He was 24 when he founded Advanced Refractory Technologies, Inc. (ART), a manufacturer of high-performance ceramics, composites and advanced coatings. And he grew the company from a staff of two to 325 employees with both local and international operations.
In 2001, Blakely sold ART to Tyco International and went on to found The Inventures Group, an advisory firm focused on delivering technology assessments, strategic business planning, and technology commercialization assistance to both U.S. and international businesses. He and his staff of experts assist entrepreneurs, innovators, and corporate executives in developing new product and technology ideas by building productive organizational structures, establishing viable commercial networks and devising marketing and funding strategies.
According to economist Enrico Moretti, the United States overall has "shifted from an economy centered on producing physical goods to one centered on innovation and knowledge jobs." In his book, "The New Geography of Jobs," Moretti explains how "(i)nnovative industries bring 'good jobs' and high salaries to the communities where they cluster, and their impact on the local economy is much deeper than their direct effect."
Blakely has analyzed this multiplier effect from his own ventures and his findings mirror that of Moretti when it comes to the value of jobs created by entrepreneurs. The economic impact can be two-three times greater than that of traditional manufacturing jobs. "What was particularly interesting when I analyzed the companies that I had started and the spin-offs and start-ups that were generated from them was that, on average, these organizations employed nearly five times as many employees per million dollars of sales as large companies. As importantly, the types of jobs that they created were much higher value positions - including skilled manufacturing, engineering, and professional jobs - than you generally expect to see with small businesses. So it wasn't just the quantity, but it was quality of the jobs as well that was more favorable in these businesses. To me, that is the way to reenergize an economy."
While not everyone can endure the rigors of being an entrepreneur, Blakely thrives in that milieu. And he believes that there are many others in the Buffalo region with the same drive, talent and vision. But what they need is an "ecosystem" consisting of like-minded innovators, support services and start-up and early-stage funding to bring their ideas to market.
An educated workforce is also one of the most important factors in creating this environment. Moretti points to a broad national trend that he refers to as the "Great Divergence" which started in the 1980's: "Cities with many college-educated workers started attracting even more, and cities with a less educated workforce started losing ground."
While Western New York is home to a large number and wide variety of colleges and universities, many graduates, including science, math and engineering majors, leave the area for economic opportunity elsewhere. With close ties to the University of Buffalo, Blakely has worked to keep this talent in WNY. He worked closely with past UB President William Greiner and Provost Betty Capaldi to develop the framework of what is now called STOR - UB's Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Research. The organization's mission is to interface between faculty/student research and the commercialization of new product and process development. In a May 6th story in The Buffalo News, Dr. Robert Genco, Vice Provost and Director of STOR, said that over 180 businesses were started or assisted by STOR.
Related to his efforts with STOR, Blakely also established First Wave Technologies, a for-profit organization that assists university researchers in advancing their technologies to a stage where they can form the basis for a successful enterprise and enter the commercial marketplace. "When I created First Wave, my vision was to demonstrate the viability of this approach - working closely with university faculty and the technology transfer office to bring new ideas and concepts across the so-called 'valley of death' and create fundable, viable start-up businesses," he said. "First Wave has successfully done this several times and I am hopeful that others will now try to replicate and emulate the approach. We could use about five to ten more 'First Wave' companies working with the great researchers we have at UB, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester, and the other research institutes in Upstate NY."
In 2011, Blakely had the opportunity to advocate at the state level when he served on the Entrepreneurship and Business Development Working Group of the WNY Regional Economic Development Council (WNYREDC). His workgroup's recommendations included creating an entrepreneur academy, developing best practice incubators throughout WNY, and reforming state and federal regulations that all too often hinder start-up companies.
While he sometimes felt like a fish out of water, given the political and bureaucratic elements involved in the process, Blakely supported the efforts of the WNYREDC by providing an authentic entrepreneurial perspective to bear on the group's work. "I was very impressed by the commitment of the leadership and participants in the process and know that they are all committed to the success of our region. My hope is that our state government understands the urgent need for major reforms in the operating environment for businesses in NYS - from taxes to regulations - and the equally urgent need to make capital available to investment in technology companies - through investment tax credits, dramatically increased allocations of seed, start-up, and development stage venture capital, and other incentives."
Blakely also emphasizes the need for new sources of venture capital for local entrepreneurs: "If we had the (financial) infrastructure to support new ideas, I have no doubt that Buffalo could be on the national and international map." To that end, IVG is initiating its own venture fund that will go beyond the personal investing Blakely has done in local start-ups as well as those outside the region. This initiative is just getting underway with Blakely tapping into the venture and private equity capital networks that have financed his previous ventures.
There were many opportunities that Blakely had which would have meant leaving the area. He has served as the CEO of companies in St. Louis, MO, Fayetteville, AR, New York City, Columbus, OH, Santa Clara, CA, and Troy, NY. He chose, instead, to stay in Western NY and lives in North Buffalo with his wife Lin who worked with him as his VP of Human Resources at ART for nearly 20 years.Many of his local clients feel the same. "They're not looking to get out of Dodge," he said. "But they are looking for signs that the region is interested in keeping them here. I believe that what we do at The Inventures Group sends a clear message that there are reasons to hope and reasons to stay." That's good news for the economy.