Rochester Didn’t Kill Kodak

In a Wall Street Journal editorial last week, Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard suggested that Rochester was to blame for the decline of the Eastman Kodak Company.

He theorized that being based in a “small city” made it difficult for the company to make the kind of bold changes to its business which would have required large layoffs. The fear of having such a big impact on the local economy, Karlgaard argued, prevented the company from adapting to the changing marketplace.

That’s a matter of opinion, I suppose, and it seems like there’s no shortage of folks willing to play Monday-morning quarterback to explain Kodak’s recent struggles.

But what irked me was Karlgaard’s inference that Rochester, unlike Boston or Silicon Valley, simply isn’t an innovative community. Kodak, he wrote, “couldn’t escape the intellectual limitations of geography.”

In other words, Rochester’s workforce wasn’t smart enough to keep Kodak from failing.

That’s ridiculous.

“When you study the history of great American companies that stumbled and failed, or only partially recovered, you see how difficult it is to overcome the mindset of your immediate surroundings,” Karlgaard wrote. “Businesses located in places where success is the norm, and innovation is built into the ecology, have a better chance of fixing themselves.”

It’s curious that he would write that, especially since Forbes magazine itself recently ranked Rochester 14th on its list of America’s most innovative cities. It ranked Rochester 10th among U.S. cities for concentration of tech and science jobs.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to knock Rochester — lake effect snow tops my list — but knocking us for an inability to innovate isn’t one of them.

Take Xerox Corp., for example. The company received 880 new patents last year, which ranked it 11th among all companies based in the United States. That’s more than many of the companies we think of as being hotbeds of innovation, like Apple, Texas Instruments or General Electric.

By my count, more than 500 of the new Xerox patents carried the name of a Rochester-based inventor. Most prolific among them was Jin Wu, who leads a team developing materials for Xerox digital printing systems. He received 70 patents in 2011, and has received a total of 216 patents since joining Xerox in the fall of 2000. By the time you read this, that number may have gone up. I’m not kidding — Wu has 185 patent applications pending.

Two other Xerox researchers ranked among the Rochester-area’s five most prolific inventors in 2011. Both are scientists at the Xerox Research Center in Webster.

Lalit Mestha received 23 new patents in 2011, including one for a health care application that could measure a person’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure using a video stream. He has received 117 patents overall, and received Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy Inventor Award in 2010 and 2011.

Raja Bala, a Xerox color scientist, ranked fifth among local inventors with 16 patents last year. Many of them involve creating and detecting watermarks within documents.

Kodak received more than 300 patents last year, and research fellow Ronald Cok ranked second among local inventors with 26 new patents. Most of his work centered on display technology, including some groundbreaking work on organic LED devices.

Fourth on the list was Timothy Fuller, whose developments in the field of fuel-cell technology earned 17 new patents last year. He and his colleagues at the General Motors research facility in Honeoye Falls received almost 100 new patents last year.

In all, more than 2,000 patents were issued to inventors in the Rochester area last year, a figure that puts us comfortably in the top 10 American cities based on patents per capita. Those figures fly in the face of Karlgaard when he suggests that Kodak’s failures were caused by a workforce and a community that were unable to adapt and innovate.

Folks like Karlgaard forget that many of those old Kodak jobs were spun off into new companies — the health imaging division that’s now Carestream, the medical testing unit that became Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, or the aerial and space imaging group that now forms the core of the geospatial systems division of ITT Exelis.

They overlook the exciting work being done at companies like Harris RF Communications and Bausch + Lomb, or the cutting-edge research being done at Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester.

Rochester’s not a one-company town, and we’re better off because of it. While many northeastern cities have struggled to reinvent themselves when auto manufacturers shrunk or steel makers closed their doors, we’ve used our talented workforce as the foundation for a new economy, one based increasingly on industry-leading research.

But don’t just take my word for it. We’ve got stacks of patents to prove it.

This column originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.