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New York’s IT startup community is driving the city's future in technology

Column Startups in the city are snowballing innovation
Fri May 10 2013, 16:46
Lee Bell column portrait

THE TECHNOLOGY STARTUP SCENE in New York is building momentum and you can feel something brewing.

I felt it because I spent the last week in the Big Apple talking with some of its growing community of developers, creatives, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. During my time there it was evident even from the small number of people I met that there's a large group of enthusiastic and innovative people all helping to drive the future of New York's information technology (IT) industry.

It's not difficult to see that something big and exciting is brewing and is bound to change the city as a result. With the boom of entrepreneurial activity in IT over the last decade or so, New York could become the world's fastest growing information technology startup centre.

I have reason to say this because during my time there I attended a number of events in the city, such as the New York Tech meet-up (NYTM) at New York University (NYU), where I had chance to gain first-hand insights about the technology startup scene in the highest energy city across the pond.

Running since 2004, NYTM is a 32,000 member non-profit organisation that supports the growing IT startup community in the city. It's best known for its monthly demo night where a handful of aspiring young technology startup companies join a group of enthusiasts and press and have the opportunity to show what they're doing and what they've accomplished, and talk about where they want to go.

This week it was the 145th meet up of its kind that kicked off in the Skirball Theatre at NYU where 10 startups each took to the stage and explained to a fairly large audience what makes their product and company unique and innovative, and what advances this could mean not only in the New York technology environment but anywhere in the world.

Noteworthy startups attending the show included Laser Tanks, an Arduino-based laser tag game with remote control tanks, Robokeg, a self-serve beer vending machine powered by NFC and the Raspberry Pi, and Videolicious, an automatic video editing app that trims, layers and publishes movies on iOS devices over the cloud.

Some startups that demoed at the event are more successful than others. Some have received investment funding, while some are still looking for it. Nevertheless, there was no evidence of dog eat dog competition between them at the meet-up. The night had a very positive feeling about it with excitement evident among everyone, who all seemed truly pleased to be a part of it.

NYTM says its goal is to "help build a sustainable technology industry that drives economic growth, leads innovation, and creates positive, high-impact change for local communities and the world".

This community aspect is something that I noticed immediately at the NYTM event. The companies, the developers and the enthusiasts in attendance were all energetic and enthusiastic about their products and there was a great sense that everyone was there to help and support one another in building the city's reputation as a growing technology centre.

The NYTM afterparty, for example, also had a lot of energy. Held at the Rosenthal Pavilion at the NYU Kimmel Centre with a spectacular view of the New York skyline, the room roared for over two hours with chatter of ideas, where they came from, where they could take them, what inspired them, their passions and genuine excitement in their own and others' products.

However, speaking to various developers and members of startups in the room, it became clear fairly early on that what the IT community in New York is lacking - as with many cities around the world - is expertise and skilled developers.

A self-proclaimed hacker and developer involved in the development of the Robokeg prototype told me that there are hundreds of wannabe entrepreneurs in New York City with great ideas who want to get up and running, but aren't able to due to the lack of funds and access to highly skilled and experienced developers. He agreed that the lack of education in the city's schools in subjects like computer programming is to blame, along with a general lack of interest among young people. But I think the burgeoning IT startup scene in New York is bound to lift people's curiosity about and interest in the technology industry.

It became apparent from my time in New York, and especially while at the NYTM, that perhaps what the city needs is its own Steve Jobs character. Not another Apple, but instead more of a role model to inspire the youth in the city about information technology and thus help spur the growth of the technology community, inspiring the interest of kids that can't yet see the city's potential.

That role model, however, could be any of the legion of creatives who are thriving in New York's underground. Take for instance the city's 3D printing community, which I didn't know existed until a colleague told me her partner, Gordon Laplante, designs and builds his own 3D printers in his living room. Fascinated, I met with him to talk me through how and why he does it, and he showed me how he built a small 3D printer from an open source Reprap design to print the parts and build his own custom designed 3D printer that is capable of printing much bigger parts.

Laplante is part of a meet-up group where people just like him talk through their progress, findings and improvements. It's all open source and Laplante told me that the members enjoy talking and sharing ideas as a way of giving back to the community they are part of. It's these creative and passionate people that I believe are contributing to the mushrooming technology community in New York City that one day will act as an inspiration and launch pad for many other people starting out without funds, just ideas, enthusiasm and ambition.

Speaking with another creative, the founder of another New York IT startup that focuses on aggregating social media content, Rebelmouse's Paul Berry, it was clear that like all the other people I met, they have energetic enthusiasm for work, love the feel of the community that they are part of, and are really enjoying what they do.

Berry told me that he thinks it's an incredibly exciting time in New York City's history and that the city itself is changing dramatically because of it. From my experience during my time in the New York technology scene this week, I can only agree. But Berry believes that not all good ideas lead to innovations, and that individuals have to not only have the skills but also the entrepreneurial mindset to make it big.

"Something is happening here," Berry said, though he observed that it's hard for startups to go from nothing to something. "But people are finding their path through it," he said. "It's a small percentage of people that do but it is really worth it."

From my experience of the technology startup community in New York this week, it's obvious that something big is happening in the city's tech scene. It might not be that one day there's an explosion of innovation before our very eyes, but it's palpable that soon the city is likely to see a creative evolution in technology, thanks to the push and support of its flourishing community of developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts that prosper within it. µ


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