July 18, 2024


Sapiens Digital

Michael Wacholder, visionary behind RPI tech park and incubator, dies

3 min read


EAST GREENBUSH – Michael Wacholder, a local high-tech trailblazer who started Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s business park and incubator program in the 1980s, died on March 11 at the age of 79.

Wacholder suffered a stroke shortly before his retirement from RPI in 2012, an incident that had confined him to a wheelchair but gave his life new purpose and meaning – and a second career writing books.

“I’ve reinvented myself, which is really important,” Wacholder said during a 2017 event at the New York BizLab in Schenectady. “My brain for the most part has survived the stroke. I’ve done a lot of reading. But more importantly, I’m writing now.”

Wacholder was born in San Francisco and attended the University of California at Berkeley before getting a masters in urban and regional planning from Texas A&M University.

Wacholder later moved to the Capital Region where he became an adjunct faculty member at RPI.

In 1979, Wacholder was asked by RPI’s legendary president at the time, George Low, to study the idea for the creation of a tech park that would be associated with the university – the genesis for what would become the Rensselaer Technology Park in North Greenbush in 1981.

At the time, tech parks were just getting off the ground as an economic development model. The most famous were the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto, Calif. and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

Wacholder also created RPI’s tech incubator that brought start-up firms onto campus to nurture them and give them administrative support until they were ready to embark out on their own.

Although business incubators today are commonplace on college campuses and also in private settings, back in the early 80s, it was considered a groundbreaking idea.

“I don’t think it’s a very traditional role for a university,” Wacholder told the New York Times in Nov. 5, 1981 story. “Essentially what we are doing is taking fledgling businesses and putting them into tax-exempt schools.”

The other reason for starting the business incubator was to help the local high-tech sector take off and possibly create future tenants of the RPI tech campus.

“As companies grow, it is expected that they will leave the incubator space and remain in the community,” Wacholder told the Times.

Current RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson said that the companies that became tenants at the tech park were transformative for the region. 

“Michael Wacholder was a visionary who had a keen passion for innovation,” Jackson said Monday. “His leadership of the Rensselaer Technology Park has inspired the birth of many great technology companies.”

RPI’s vision for the tech park and incubator paved the way for similar university-based research centers, including Albany Nanotech, which was affiliated with the University at Albany and funded by New York state along with corporate partners like IBM.

Wacholder was also a founding board member of the Association of University Research Parks, and was its president from 1987 to 1988.

Brian Darmody, the current CEO of the Association of University Research Parks, said that Wacholder was one of several “visionaries” who gathered at Arizona State University’s own fledgling tech park in 1986 to create the association, which today has members in 42 states and 12 countries.

“There weren’t many parks around at that time, and the more recent interest in innovation districts was just beginning,” Darmody told the Times Union. “I am sure he must have been proud to see the growth in the nonprofit he helped to found.”

The Rensselaer Technology Park has hosted some of the region’s most successful companies, including General Electric, MapInfo, Vicarious Visions, Treo Solutions, Regeneron and IBM. It was also the first site for Tech Valley High School, which is now located at Albany Nanotech.

Wacholder published three books after his stroke, including “Where’s There?: The Shared Insights of a Stroke Survivor.” He was also an avid photographer and art collector. 

Wacholder’s family will hold a celebration of his life on April 2 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pat’s Barn, an events center at the Rensselaer Technology Park.



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