Navy Yard program seeks to find tech talent and build sustainable cities
The future of sustainable cities might begin in Brooklyn.
New Lab, the 84,000-square-foot innovation hub in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, announced last week it will host the 2020 iteration of an annual program that brings tech talent to New York City, with the goal of making this metropolis and others like it more sustainable. The program, dubbed “Circular City,” is funded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, an agency dedicated to spurring economic growth. Circular City aims to attract global startups that are developing technology and products that can aid in a city’s transition toward a circular economy, where resources are retained within a closed-loop system, through recycling and other processes, eliminating waste and pollution.
The focus of the program’s efforts this year — its third — will be improvements to the energy efficiency of buildings, which are responsible for 67 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the five boroughs. Alongside New Lab and NYCEDC, representatives of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, Governors Island and the Flatbush Junction BID, as well as individuals from academic institutions and other entrepreneurs and investors from the urban tech landscape, will review the applications, collaborate with the approved startups and offer sites where their technologies will be planted.
“We really started this program to be responsive to needs that we were seeing on both the entrepreneur and the startup side, as well as the city side,” Shaina Horowitz, vice president of products and programs at New Lab, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Once they’ve firmly established their designs, startups want their products to go to market, function and provide value, Horowitz said. City stakeholders, who want to see community benefits from these innovations, must require stout vetting of such companies and their offerings.
“A program like this is designed to kind of create the safe space to push the envelope and to experiment with new technologies in a context of these specific challenges,” she added.
Horowitz observed that the recent passing of New York’s Local Law 97, which targets an 80 percent cut to building carbon emissions over the next 30 years, has created “more market pressure for building and asset owners to think about increasing energy efficiency.”
“There certainly is an increasing sense of urgency — when you look around the world and you see what’s happening in Australia, and what’s happening in our own backyard in terms of climate change — and we see that we need new approaches,” she said. “This is an opportunity for startups who can react to that in some sort of positive manner to come forward.”
The funding for Circular City, according to NYCEDC, spawned in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2014 “One City: Built to Last” sustainability plan. Two years later, as part of that plan, NYCEDC devoted $7.2 million to partnerships with New Lab and Grand Central Tech, a second tech development hub in Manhattan, now called Company. The city agency has yet to allocate all of those funds and is using some of the leftovers for this program.
NYCEDC is seeking additional sponsors to kick in, too, similarly to when Citi Ventures, the investment firm backed by Citi, provided funding last year. A portion of the program’s grant money will be devoted to offsetting costs for the startups, which could include helping them relocate to New York. However, New Lab and its partners are looking to work with companies with products that are ready to launch or close to it.
Horowitz said New Lab and NYCEDC have measured Circular City’s success by “the virtue of being able to get startups’ technology deployed and live on the streets of New York City.”
“It’s very much an additive program,” Sander Dolder, NYCEDC’s vice president of industry initiatives, told the Eagle. “In order for [these startups] to succeed, in order for them to really grow, getting access to city infrastructure, being able to pilot and showcase their technologies is extremely valuable for their growth trajectory.”
A few startups accepted into Circular City in past years have launched pilots that collected and analyzed neighborhood-level data and insights that resonated with various city agencies, Horowitz said. Among them was Numina, which compiles information about street and sidewalk traffic volume in a designated area, and the pathways of entities that travel through them. The company recently provided data to the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative that can be used in efficiency-minded alterations of a South Williamsburg portion of the waterfront pedestrian and cyclist path.
“This was their foray into the New York market,” Horowitz said of Numina’s participation in Circular City in 2018. “And they were able to leverage the experience of deploying their technology … to close business deals in other cities and in other markets.”
From NYCEDC’s perspective, they see return on investment manifest, at least partly, in new jobs.
Carmera, another company that has emerged from the pack of former Circular City applicants, is showing signs of such growth. Builders of maps that help driverless cars navigate roads, Carmera has tested their products in the Brooklyn Navy Yard — though they were not part of the highly publicized debut of that autonomous fleet last summer.
“They were three people a couple years ago,” Dolder said of Carmera’s staff, “and through our program at New Lab and the support through programs such as Circular City, they’re already at about 40 [employees].” He added that the company hopes to double its roster within the next year, splitting the workers between headquarters in Seattle and New York.
Discovering such companies that may help transform city life as we know it is “one of the best parts of the program,” Horowitz said. “We get to see what’s out there and get to meet startups that we don’t already know, and learn what they’re all about and connect them in with opportunities in New York City.”
New Lab and NYCEDC hope at least five of the startups that apply will activate their technologies by late spring or early summer. They’ll have access to all of New Lab’s facilities as they prepare to launch, as well as a dedicated team of people, from inside the organization and its network, offering guidance.
Michael Stahl is a New York-based reporter covering business and technology across the borough. You can find him on Twitter.
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