‘Start-up City’: How NYC Hopes To Foster Entrepreneurship

Discussions about startups usually include mentions of incubators and accelerators and venture capitalists (oh my!). But New York City itself has also taken note of that entrepreneurial spirit. In 2012, Manhattan Borough President (and current Democratic candidate for New York City comptroller) Scott Stringer compiled a report to assess the challenges startups in the city face. The objective being, of course, to then tackle to those issues.

The report identified the following five problems:

  • Talent shortage
  • Bureaucratic inefficiency
  • Consistent connectivity
  • Inferior infrastructure
  • Unaffordable atmosphere

As the cliché goes, the first step toward solving a problem is to identify it. The report, however, sought to go further and make recommendations with input from “key stakeholders.”

Interestingly, the recommendations go beyond attempts to aid current entrepreneurs and also focus on issues such as education from an early age. As the report says, skills — “from computer technology and coding to financial literacy and the basics of business — will serve all of our students well regardless of their chosen career path.” The argument in favor of more STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is hardly a new one, but notable in the context of fostering entrepreneurship in the city.

Infrastructure and resources are also important issues, and the report particularly emphasizes access to internet and improving connectivity — which has been a goal in many cities outside the context of small business. In some senses, this is a more palatable challenge with more plausible short-term implementation than, say, overhauling the school curriculum.

However, a report coming from an elected official is not without its political aims. In this case, immigration takes center stage, with Stringer arguing for passing immigration legislation (the DREAM Act with a pathway to citizenship) and altering the way visas and Green Cards are allotted. Beyond the political scope, these are goals that can be achieved only through the country’s legislative process and differ vastly from other recommendations (such as education).

While any given report may be filled with grand ideas, they are just that: ideas. Which leaves the other crucial part: execution. After all, identifying problems means the objective is to resolve them.

[Photo via Flickr / chrisjroos]

East Meets West: New York City And Silicon Valley Startups By The Numbers

The startup world has typically been associated with Silicon Valley. Increasingly, however, New York City has become its East Coast counterpart — making for an interesting comparison. While the startup ecosystems in both cities share much in common, differences (such as gender ratio) are worth taking a look at…

Below is a comparison of some aspects (based on data via Startup Genome):

Dear scientists, here’s an app that will help you work better, faster, smarter

Dear scientists, listen up! Did you go looking for a chemical in the lab to find that the lab has ran out of it? Or accidentally forgot to attach a worksheet to your journal? There might be an app that will help you with that and more.

Benchpals, a NYU Poly startup which focuses on laboratory management has developed an app, specifically designed for scientists who work in labs. Designed by material chemistry doctoral students themselves, BenchPals is designed to help scientists and students manage inventories, data management for their lab experiments. The app is in the testing phase.

Founders Ching Yao Yang and Jasmine Yume. Photo credit: Srividya K

Founders Ching Yao Yang and Jasmin Hume. Photo credit: Srividya K

Started by Jasmine Hume, Ching Yao Yang and Raul Catena, the idea for the app was conceived while working in the lab. “The idea for it came while working. I realized that while working, I use my phone a lot for posting videos, listening to music because some experiments take 3-6 hours. And I started using calculators, timers simultaneously and realized there is no product that combines these elements on a phone. We also have budget constraints and that’s the moment we thought that we want to combine these elements together,” said Ching Yao Yang, originally from Taiwan, who moved to New York five years ago to pursue his masters in biomedical engineering.

The app will help scientists and students with the way that they work in labs by organizing different things in one place. Inventory and data management are two aspects that this app focuses on. “There is also one thing that is specific to people who work in labs which is managing chemical inventories. Shelves contain thousands of chemicals stored, imagine your kitchen, it’s just like that,” said Hume. “A lot of these things have expiration dates and a lot of them are hazardous and you really need to keep track of what you have and what you don’t and that also makes it more efficient in terms of purchasing,” said Hume, a Swedish American who grew up in Manhattan.

In terms of funding, BenchPals received a small funding from the NYU Venture Fund and from some contests that they entered. Hume and Yang believe that their full-time student status put them at a disadvantage from the funding point of view as investors are unwilling to fund students. “We are incredibly lean. We have spent no money at all. We are fortunate enough to build a good team in the beginning with people having complementary strengths. It’s all sweat equity. We are in a unique position because we are full time students and we have made connections with investors ,relationships we are looking forward to foster but it is also apparent to me that investors are not going to fund people who are full time students and they have been honest with us,” said Hume.

Going forward, as a part of their future plan, BenchPals plans to hire a business person on board, continue working on the app and their labs and keep entering contests.

Dress to Code: Fashion Your Ideas Technically

Who doesn’t like fall in New York City? Crispy days start with football season and a sense of fashion. As Big Apple turns on its Runway mode, a group of people with brilliant designing ideas were gathering together for a one-day hackathon last Saturday in Flatiron, Manhattan.

Organized by General Assembly and sponsored by Glamour magazine and Council of Fashion Designer of America (CFDA), the concept of fashion hackathon is to team up software developers and fashion designers to create software projects with a better user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

“Yes, it’s a competition and we’ll have different prizes for our top three winners.”

On the left: Cindi Leive; on the right: Steven Kolb

Cindi Leive (left); Steven Kolb (right).

The event was started with greetings from Steven Kolb, CEO of CFDA, and Cindi Leive, Editor-in-Chief of Glamour, along with a series of presentations about Application Programming Interface (API) by programming experts from multiple perspectives, including Facebook, Tumblr, Gilt, Aviary, Glamour and Hacker League.

A programmer from Aviary were presenting API

A programmer from Aviary was presenting API.

Attendees majorly consisted of software developers, fashion designers, and a few of free-lancers. During this one-day session, they all actively shared their thoughts with each other.

“I really like the event, as I always did with all the events from General Assembly,” says a developer who works in a technology firm in midtown, Manhattan. “And hackathon is a great chance to meet more entrepreneurs and opportunities.”

Regarding to several specific subjects in blending fashion with technology, fashion lovers and application programmers brainstormed creative ideas, such as customizing shopping interface for customers or mobile users by providing certain functions to help shoppers measure their clothes size without going to stores.

Inspired by entrepreneurial experience, General Assembly has been acting as an innovative supporter to assist entrepreneurs and startup companies in New York City for nearly 3 years.

“Nothing is as chic as a clean line of code. We wanna help.”

During the judging process of the competition, teams were asked to showcase their prototypes and application demos. Finally, judges made the decisions on winners by analyzing whether the demo reflected customer’s need, the product is profitable for commercial use or not, and if it provided a friendly use experience.

The first prize was gained by Thrifter, who designed an application that allows shoppers to bid clothes. Apart from cash prize, Thrifter team will also have the opportunity to pitch Andrew Siegel, head of strategy for Advanced Publications, parent company of Glamour magazine.

[Photos by Amy Xie]

NYC is where ideas have sex (and other insights from an innovation guru)

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Professor Luke Williams

Prior to the great recession, the east coast hardly posed competition for the thriving tech scene in California’s Silicon Valley. But things have changed rapidly in recent years. Since 2007, more than 1000 tech startups have emerged in New York City, financed by billions in venture capital.

What’s behind this transformation? To answer this question, Startup Studio spoke with Stern School of Business Professor Luke Williams. A leading thinker in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship, Williams is a book author, a fellow at frog design, and the executive director of NYU’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Williams explored the key drivers of the NYC startup ecosystem’s rapid growth, discussed the startup community’s future (hint: it won’t look like the Silicon Valley), and made a compelling case for why major cities like NYC are magnets for innovation (see the title).

Check out his insights below.

What have been the key drivers of the NYC startup community’s rapid growth since 2007?

There are a lot of theories on this. There was the initial push between 1995 and 2000 in which the term “Silicon Alley” was coined. But after the dot com bust, things went quiet for a while.

Around 2008 and 2009 things started picking up again. A number of major startups sprang up here, including Twitter and Foursquare. Venture capital firms also started opening up, largely based on the success of Union Square Partners, which was one of the first in. Additionally, high profile accelerators like Tech Stars really made an impact. The net result was that this ecosystem really started to emerge and people got excited.

Another factor that you sometimes hear is that it just isn’t as easy to get a job at a consultancy or Wall Street firm anymore. So people might be experimenting with entrepreneurship as an alternative.

Also, the development of the iPhone and the whole supply chain involved in making apps seems to have created a new generation on entrepreneurs. I came from a background in industrial design. I know from being in that space that to create a new product traditionally is really expensive. To get a product close to ready for market you need at least $80,000 to $100,000. Many people turned away from becoming innovators because there were too many barriers in place. Digital apps have changed all that. Programs exist to get mockups done online that simulate an app for next to nothing. That has been huge.

What are the comparative advantages of NYC as a home for startups?

I think that NYC has a massive advantage. New York catapulted to second among national rankings for entrepreneurial hubs, and for good reason. As innovators and entrepreneurs, one of the most important things for us is sharing ideas. When ideas are shared, they don’t just add up, they multiply. Another way of saying this is to quote Matt Ridley, who says that ideas don’t just replicate, they have sex. So New York encourages ideas to have sex. There is this environment where there is a hell of a lot sex going on. It’s difficult to say how many ideas bump together in Silicon Valley, where the main industry is tech. New York has media, finance, fashion – such a range of different experiences on an incredibly small island. In this city, ideas are having sex with each other with increasing promiscuity.

How do you expect the NYC startup scene to change in the near future?

I think the ecosystem is going to continue to grow. We have barely scratched the surface. There is so much interest and energy here in entrepreneurship and innovation, and there is a real investment being made. I really think this will explode during the next five years in particular. NYU, for example, is really ramping up its entrepreneurial efforts. The Berkley Center runs one of the largest entrepreneurship competitions in the world, with about 180 teams of 500 students from forty different schools coming here to get businesses up and running. Roosevelt Island with Cornell is another great example. I think the ecosystem will just keep growing.

Everyone thinks Silicon Valley is the model for tech startup ecosystems, but I don’t think New York City will be a replica of Silicon Valley. I think we will see a new model for the 21st century that is far more networked than ever seen before. People tell me that Silicon Valley’s culture is very dependent on the University and the venture capital network. I think in the New York ecosystem those sorts of organizations will be important, but they won’t form the most important relationship. There will be more of a network structure with a wider array of relationships.

Are there any significant bottlenecks to growth for NYC’s startup community? What is being done or should be done to address them?

I think that the biggest thing impeding entrepreneurship involves mindset. This isn’t about how many businesses we can create or even how many successful businesses. It’s not so much about the success rate as the experimentation rate. Potential entrepreneurs should focus less on success and more and getting as many experiments started as possible.

Right now, people don’t conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs. They need the confidence to back up insights and ideas. The reality is that anyone has the same potential to turn a mind-blowing insight into a marketable idea as anyone else. This is a process and a skill and can be learned and applied. People just need to believe they can do it.