To the Streets: The Medical Marijuana Stage of City Innovation

By New Lab / October 3, 2017

In 2017, four New Lab companies will launch pilot programs of their technologies in our own backyard, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Clear pathways to meaningful iteration are part of the promise of the Urban Tech Hub–a program in partnership with the NYCEDC.

As we get older, we realize that “as a result of” and “in spite of” are exactly the same thing. We learn that there are no solutions without problems, no progress without friction, no innovation without breaking things. A good idea with a lot of hard work is not enough, great city support is not enough, and a community of willing entrepreneurs is not enough. But, together, interesting things can happen.

For better and for worse, there’s no place like New York. We’re the second largest tech economy in the US, but, despite this, we’re often thought of as difficult to maneuver and bureaucratic.

A group of public-private partners are working to change that perception. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is helping a number of New Lab’s Urban Tech Hub companies test their products in their own backyard, and transcend their size and scale to ultimately take their projects to the city streets, infrastructure, and waterways. The first round of companies—an expert robotics firm, a high-performance solar company, a sophisticated e-bike sharing company, and a company developing a revolutionary technology for urban 3D mapping—are leading the first round of such experiments this fall.

Voltaic Systems makes solar-ware robust enough to power remote UN initiatives, and durable enough for off-the-grid photographers capsizing kayaks in Patagonia. As a member of New Lab, Voltaic recently embarked on designing solar-powered sensors that can be used by local organizations like the Billion Oyster Project, a massive New York environmental restoration initiative. Jeff Crystal runs Voltaic’s operations and says with New York’s labyrinthine decision structures he wouldn’t have known where to start.

There are many initiatives to improve water quality in NYC–but limited data to track efforts over time. Voltaic aims to change that.

“I probably would have wondered whether I can bother them,” Crystal says of the city’s management bodies. “In terms of the scale of city projects, this is small potatoes. But for us, it’s extremely valuable.”

Voltaic is a member of New Lab’s Urban Tech Hub program, which is a partnership between New Lab and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). “We create strong pathways and build critical bridges for companies to develop these important technologies as they’re preparing to go to market,” says New Lab’s Tech Hub director Shaina Horowitz.“And the city loves it because these companies are helping to improve the city itself.”

New Lab houses over 100 companies building advanced technologies. “We are thrilled to partner with the city and the Navy Yard to allow these companies to access real-world test cases,” David Belt, New Lab’s co-founder and CEO, says.

“The nature of innovation requires iteration; we all need to test and deploy before finalizing design.” Belt adds, “We’re sort of in the ‘medical marijuana phase’ of smart cities—legal, and somewhat accepted as the future, but not yet ready for prime time.”

New Lab opened its doors in Brooklyn Navy Yard Building 128 a year ago. There are millions of dollars in prototyping equipment on-site, which aid companies building meticulous robotic arms, synthetic bone implants, and new tech rooted in artificial intelligence, IoT, and nanotechnology, among other disciplines.

“New York is an ideal place to manufacture products right now,” says Clare Newman, the Navy Yard’s Chief of Staff.

“The combination of access to talent, market proximity, real-live test beds and the ability to collaborate with the other cutting-edge entrepreneurs that we have here – particularly at the Brooklyn Navy Yard – is unparalleled anywhere in the United States.”

Any time Social Bicycles, an upstart bikeshare company and New Lab member, wants to test a new design, they step outside. “That’s why we haven’t worked in other spaces,” says Nick Foley, who heads product. “The overall environment of the Navy Yard is perfect for transportation concepts.” This fall, Social Bicycles will bring 100 of their electric bikes to the Navy Yard to see how they perform in a city like New York.

Social Bicycles will pilot a fleet of its new electric bikes, called Jump, in the Navy Yard this fall. Here, team members put the finishing touches on a prototype.

The NYCEDC and the Navy Yard are uniquely positioned as partners for New Lab, as they’re capable of paving inroads to success in a notoriously challenging city. “Most startups like us are not very excited to figure out the machine of government,” Ro Gupta says. “Psychologically knowing New Lab, the NYCEDC, and the Navy Yard are there to help with that is liberating.”

Gupta cofounded Carmera with Justin Day, the former CTO of MakerBot. Carmera has developed a technology that allows for real-time, constantly updated 3D mapping of cities. The founders see potential for their technology to be crucial for urban developers, autonomous vehicles, public transportation and infrastructure. Gupta says the choice to keep Carmera here, and not moving to an area with more open space, was deliberate for their growth.

“New York is like a small country in itself. You test in a confined market and extend out,” Gupta says.

Honeybee Robotics has built robotic parts for Mars Rovers. John Abrashkin, who directs Honeybee’s business development, understates this eloquently: “We build things that work in dynamic environments.” The company works with NASA in California but leverages their New Lab offices to test mouse-sized pipe-crawling robots. Iterating in an environment like the Navy Yard ensures their product can perform in challenging settings.

“The whole building acts like an extended brain trust,” Abrashkin says of New Lab. “It’s nice to be around so many smart people doing important work.”

Photography by Rich Gilligan. This article was originally published in Tech Fancy Issue 1: Break Things.

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