Touring a Haven for Tech Entrepreneurs in NYC
Helping startup tech entrepreneurs get a leg up and then grow and prosper is the overarching goal of the Urban Tech Hub @ Company, an outgrowth of startup accelerator Grand Central Tech which occupies a bustling, unique space that has been fashioned for that very purpose and is located a stone’s throw from Manhattan’s commuter nexus, Grand Central Terminal.
“Within New York City, the corporate headquarters of America, we’ve created this community of innovation,” Robinson Hernandez, executive director of the Urban Tech Hub @ Company, told us during a recent facilities tour. Hernandez has been a presenter at Dealerscope’s CE Week annual midsummer technology expo in New York, opining on the goals and challenges startups have in their early stages, and in his current role, he is involved in shepherding the growth and development of this space. His background is replete with initiatives in the small-business services sector. He navigated city bureaucracy for years, including as Deputy Commissioner of Small Business Services for the City of New York, where he led a task force on regulatory reform and economic development to change the way the city interacts with small-business owners.
Fast forward to 2019 and The Urban Tech Hub @ Company, whose mission, as stated in a descriptive paragraph about the organization, is to “materially advance the prospects of entrepreneurs and companies seeking to address New York City’s most pressing urban challenges in sectors such as mobility, logistics, infrastructure, open data and clean tech.”
Of the 1.1 million-square-foot Company tech campus within the 335 Madison Ave. location, Urban Tech Hub @ Company takes up about 50,000 square feet of the 250,000 square feet being set aside for startups’ eventual use. “We’re creating the first vertical tech campus here,” Hernandez said. There are retail, food and beverage, and health and wellness amenities on premises as well – making for a people-friendly work environment that nurtures innovation.
“We are three years old, with 55 companies currently in residence in office suites,” Hernandez says. “Our focus is on growth-stage companies with employees who need space, to provide them with a support platform including programming and affordable rent – plus this ecosystem permits them to have engagement with like-minded people. It’s a thought leadership center,” he said.
Part of the support system is provided by corporate partners and city government agencies interested in fostering new ventures within the city’s tech community. There are even cooperative efforts with the educational community – for example, a program partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY) that provides paid internships for 30 students per year, with an eye towards encouraging companies to hire these students upon graduation.
The vetting process for startups to gain access to the program and an apportioned space is comprised of several steps - through online applications followed by a review, an in-person interview and a final signoff by the city’s Economic Development Corp. “We ask if their enterprises are related to urban planning, and why they feel they should be part of this ecosystem… Some applicants have five or 10 employees but each industry’s requirements are different – even a single person may qualify.”
Typical of the story arc of companies who have germinated in this environment, he said, is Carbon Lighthouse, a company now located in San Francisco whose focus is on making buildings more energy-efficient by suggesting improvements in HVAC control to reduce energy usage 10 to 15 percent. “They had one employee at first, then were four. They’re up to 12 to 15 employees and are still ‘virtual members’ – still part of our ecosystem.”
One example Hernandez gave of how this tech hub works hand in hand with city agencies has to do with its relationship with NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority), which provides around 400,000 residents housing in 2,600 buildings around the city and has benefited from new ideas generated by resident startups in the program. NYCHA staff was invited to hear presentations from 10 companies, and three of those with the best five-minute “elevator pitches” were selected for the utility of their ideas. One proposed a sensor system for building floors that could register flood conditions and other anomalies within buildings and provide NYCHA with detection feedback on these conditions. The organization has also worked with audio company and corporate partner Bose in furthering Bose’s initiatives in the Augmented Reality (AR) space. Other corporate partners include Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and GE, to name just a few.
The facility includes a large common area as well as an amphitheater stage for speakers, and a diverse Events Calendar reflects a breadth of presentation topics ranging from cybersecurity to gun control.
In a brief walkthrough of the premises, we took note of some of the occupants of the office suites:
- Pillar Technologies, a developer of sensors to detect toxicity and vibrations at construction sites via a lightweight, surface-mountable device;
- EVBox, developer of electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions that has already deployed 48,000 charging points worldwide; and
- TransitScreen, creator of comprehensive public displays showing information at a glance about real-time public transportation choices using cloud-based software that powers over a thousand screens in every major U.S. and Canadian city and in select cities in Europe.
“Our goal is to get the technology industry to a point where it reflects the diversity of the city of New York,” said Hernandez.