New York City may have weathered the recession better than many major cities, but it still suffered from a strong hit to the capital markets with a loss of revenue and jobs when some major firms collapsed. But though Wall St. continues to rebound, the city has sought to re-energize its economy by launching sixty-some initiatives targeted specifically at spurring entrepreneurship.
One major effort has been to develop a series of sector specific incubators to provide valuable office space to fledgling companies at well below market rents. The first to launch is called The 160 Varick Street Incubator, after its address in downtown Manhattan, established through a partnership with NYU-Poly, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and Trinity Real Estate; it offers 16,500 square feet of space, along with equipment, conference rooms and kitchen space for around 30 companies, plus networking and mentoring services. The incubator provides units of 100 square feet of space -- enough for one desk chair -- though often more people squeeze in for $300 per employee per month to companies ranging from financial technology to digital media ventures.
One early tenant was Ecological Group, a green technology firm that monitors sustainable practices for commercial building. Founded in 2008, the company develops plans for real estate portfolios to reduce energy costs, improve efficiencies, and to comply with ever changing green regulations; it currently works in about 10 million square feet of residential and commercial space. One of its five founders, Lindsay Napor McLean says she heard about the incubator program on the radio just in time because her company had been "planning to move to New Jersey because we couldn't afford Manhattan rents."
Since moving into the incubator in downtown Manhattan during the summer of 2009, Ecological Group has received $2 mil in funds from private investors and has grown to a staff of 20. Recently it formed a strategic partnership with Cushman Wakefield, the world's largest privately held real estate company to bring sustainable building practices to its properties.
A University of Pennsylvania-trained engineer with an MBA in real estate finance, Lindsay admits that building any company from the ground up is "hard because of all the things you don't expect you have to do and then you have to do every job at once." But the hard work has paid off: Ecological Group recently announced it will "graduate" from the incubator soon to get more space, but now they are ready to pay higher rents Another 160 Varick St. company founder is Zoe Fraade-Blanar, Chief Data Officer of Water Canary, which is working on a small inexpensive water testing device, which costs less than $1000, but instantaneously lets users know if water is safe. One major application, Zoe says, "is for disaster situations, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when the highest priority is usually to restore drinking water. The Water Canary device makes it possible to assess where help is needed most, shrinking the time it takes to deliver the supplies and assistance." The company has done research in several countries with its strategic partner UNICEF, with whom it expects to embark on a test project later this year in Uganda.
The 160 Varick St. incubator also includes eleven "virtual" tenants who pay half the monthly fee for the privilege of the office resources on an "as needed' basis. One virtual tenant is two-year- old Nude Barre, a company which provides undergarments, particularly tights in 15 shades of nude to match all skin tones for women who perform, coach, teach or work.
Its Founder-CEO is dancer and model Erin Carpenter, who while studying at the Alvin Ailey and Harlem Ballet on scholarship could never find nude- colored tights that matched her skin tone. Nor could several other members of the corps. So, Erin says, "we took whatever tights were available closest to our skin color and spent several hours spraying and dying them to blend with out skin tones; it was exhausting and yet we were terrified we would be kicked out if we didn't follow the exacting dress codes." Erin's aha! moment came two years ago when she was participating in a photo shoot as a member of the NBA's Knicks City Dancers, who were required to wear flesh-toned dancing tights, fishnets and bras. "All of the dancers were complaining about how the tights they had to wear simply didn't match their skin tones," says Erin, so she began to research the market and conduct surveys of fellow dancers on their needs. What she was found was an opportunity to supply flesh-colored, eco friendly, comfortable tights and underwear that matched the many variations of skin tones among women.
A graduate of Marymount Manhattan College, Erin located a manufacturer in Shanghai who sends her shipments of white tights which she currently has dyed by a small company in Brooklyn. Last September she was ready to sell: among her first customers were the "Buffalo Jills", the cheerleaders who performs whenever the NFL's Buffalo Bills play, as well as the Miami Heat dancers. Her hometown team, The Knicks City Dancers, also wear the Nude Barre products.
But Erin sees market possibilities beyond performers. Recently Marriott Hotels asked her to participate in a holiday event selling products to employees at corporate headquarters in Maryland. Response was so good with follow up orders that she expects her merchandise will soon be included in their employee stores that sell a range of products including luggage, electronics and jewelry. She adds, "I'm so glad my parents encouraged me to be an entrepreneur because they understood that dancing wasn't forever." Unless, of course, you move from wearing to supplying!