(Photo courtesy of Andy Zou)
Maker stories used to focus on decentralized production tools, hobbyists and makerspaces. Now it’s about the businesses behind products that make people’s lives.
Take StrongArm Technologies, for example, which makes safety equipment for blue-collar workers. The Navy Yard-based company was featured in CNN Money, CNBC’s Nightly Business Report, Crain’s New York and right here in Technical.ly.
StrongArm was one of six fellows in the 2015-2016 NYCEDC Next Top Makers incubator, a program of Futureworks NYC that aims to establish the city as a leader in advanced manufacturing by helping a cohort of companies build and grow in New York. Run by agencies SecondMuse and Imagination in Space, the 2015-16 cohort included:
Over the past year, the six companies have raised more than $1.6 million in funding and estimate they’ll reinvest $1.3 million right back into the city’s economy. They’ve created 10 local jobs (and Thimble just added four engineers), are building strong teams and are contributing to the development of the advanced-tech industry.
StrongArm wasn’t the only one to get featured in national publications — many of the Fellows were press magnets. The media featured Dog Parker’s pay-by-the-minute dog houses more than 30 times, including coverage by Wall Street Journal, Good Day New York and Bustle. Thimble’s smart toys sparked conversation in Engadget, PSFK and The Creators Project. blink blink’s electronic kits made their way into Time, Fortune and MSN. The companies’ storytelling success is indicative of a larger groundswell: advanced manufacturing is now mainstream in NYC and beyond.
Next Top Makers Fellows are finding plenty of support in this ecosystem.
The company took first place in the Frontier Tech Startup Showdown, second in Bklyn Library’s PowerUp! Business Planning Competition and third at the National Hardware Cup, just behind 2014-2015 Fellow Botfactory. They’ve secured investment from a roster of angels and early-stage VCs and joined Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator.
Dog Parker already launched a pilot in Fort Greene by teaming up with neighborhood restaurants, cafes and grocery stores. And, most importantly for local manufacturing, they contracted Queens’ Boyce Technologies to produce the first 100 houses.
Thimble raised $300,000 on Kickstarter from 1,776 backers, showing the consumer desire for DIY toys paired with online tutorials. Thimble used these funds to hire four engineers in June and are delivering to backers as well in August.
blink blink attracted hundreds of fans for dozens of workshops across NYC and were invited to present at the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in Pasadena. They shipped kits to global cities and filled orders for the nonprofit STEM organization Black Girls Code and Manhattan’s favorite toy store, Kidding Around.
StrongArm moved from Harlem’s Zahn Center to New Lab at the Brooklyn Navy Yard after orchestrating a strategic partnership with 3M. This year, the team shipped more than 2,000 products, won the prestigious A’Design Award and is trialing ergoskeletons with American Airlines, FedEx and Barclays Center.
Wear.Works, one of our pre-product fellows, evolved its Beyond Sight haptic sensor from an idea to a functional MVP. They’re working to create a platform that uses vibrations to safely guide the visually impaired (7.5 million people in the U.S. alone) through cities and new neighborhoods. Wear.Works is capturing interest from the National Federation for the Blind and USSOCOM and eyeing up a handful of accelerators.
Bon Bouton’s smart clothing sensor can measure everything from breathing rate to body temperature to stress levels. They were recently accepted to the Monozukuri bootcamp in Kyoto to further their prototype and submitted for a $225,000 federal grant to develop smart shoes for diabetic patients with two NYC hospitals.
Since the Next Top Makers incubator doesn’t take equity, our priority isn’t cashing out on individual companies. Instead, the program is part of NYCEDC’s investment into the overall advanced manufacturing economy.
We can’t say this enough: Growing a company is hard. And without our own fund, we needed to find a way to deeply help Fellows and the Next Top Makers community. So we focused on social and intellectual capital instead and recruited New York City innovation leaders to help.
- VCs like Bolt and Brand Foundry Ventures and crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter and Indiegogo mentored on fundraising.
- Consultants and product managers from Skillbridge, Upwind Strategies, Electronic Objects, Expa’s Kit.com guided company development.
- Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic, Myers Wolin and Cooley advised on the legal front.
- littleBits, Pensa, Shapeways, Jim Allen and Spencer Wright roadmapped how to understand users and work with manufacturers.
- Impact Hub NYC and NYDesigns gave startups places to work and produce.
- We marketed the startups through popups, Maker Faire and SXSW showcases, to the press and on social media.
We hosted monthly lunches to bring startup founders together to talk shop, share insights, recommend service providers and strategy. Fellows from last year’s cohort frequently came through to advise as well. The lunches were a simple way to build social capital and a reminder that the reason we move to New York is the rapid exchange of ideas and the easy clustering.
Two small but meaningful examples: Thimble and blink blink co-wrote their terms of service, shared toy industry connections and best practices for kit preparation. StrongArm prepared blink blink for their New York Toy Fair showcase by showing how to make products retail ready.
The lessons we learned from Fellows, the relationships to mentors and the experience running the program, informed a series of free Next Top Makers workshops. We learned that along with money and marketing, two evergreen needs, entrepreneurs wanted laser-focused classes paired with product startup blueprints. (Think small doses of General Assembly.)
Starting in January, we offered monthly workshops lead by program advisors. Jordi Barras, littleBits’ head of industrial design, for instance, teamed up with Spencer Wright to teach New York product-startup founders about designing for manufacturing. Pensa’s Marco Perry, whose award-winning design firm created DIWire and solar street chargers, paired up with Kit.com CEO Camille Hearst on understanding and designing for users.