As we step inside New Lab‘s 84,000-square-foot facility at the Navy Yard, Varun Adibhatla immediately rattles off facts about its history.
The building, over a century old, was formerly used to assemble engines for warships such as the USS Arizona. Though he’s giving a tour, it doesn’t sound like boilerplate. Soon enough, he confirms it’s not.
“My dad was in the Merchant Navy, so I’m familiar with nautical terms,” he said.
Unlike his father, a naval engineer in India, Adibhatla, 31, has spent much of his career as a software developer, working in banking and building intangible things. But in his new role as the director of the yet-to-launch Urban Tech Hub at New Lab, he’s performing what he believes is his own version of public service, with companies that will be making products you can touch and hold, no less.
The Urban Tech Hub is a new program from New Lab and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that aims to support hardware companies addressing challenges such as transportation, energy and air quality, we reported earlier today. It’s catering to growth-stage companies, those that have already raised funding and have a sense of their product, in order to distinguish itself from other hardware startup programs (there’s NYCEDC’s Next Top Makers, as well as the similarly-named Urban-X, which will launch in Greenpoint this fall.)
Adibhatla knows from experience what the participants will be going through. Before joining the Urban Tech Hub, he was a founding member of Argo Labs, a collective of data scientists and developers focused on improving government operations who met at NYU’s Center of Urban Science and Progress in the MetroTech complex in Downtown Brooklyn.
Last year, the group won a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a device that surveyed the quality of street surfaces. As part of that project, Argo Labs worked with the City of Syracuse, where it collected street quality data for a cumulative stretch of some 500 miles. The work involved plenty of interactions with local officials, which Adibhatla said was the most informative part of his experience. Now, at Urban Tech Hub, he’s looking to pay it forward.
“This is a great way to share that knowledge with growth-stage companies,” he said.
From Banking to Civic Tech
Adibhatla grew up in Hyderabad, India. Tinkering was in his blood: his father, the naval engineer, was “a total gearhead,” in Adibhatla’s words, and Adibhatla learned to fix household appliances from an early age. But he preferred to tackle different sorts of problems. After graduating from college in Hyderabad with a degree in information technology, he enrolled in a master’s program in human-computer interaction at Penn State.
Even then, Adibhatla’s work had a public service bent. One of his projects involved developing a platform for first responders. But shortly after he graduated in 2008, the recession hit and finance proved to be his best option, especially given his need for an employer to sponsor his visa. He began his career at BNP Paribas as a programmer analyst and later moved to Bank of America, where he worked in high-frequency trading. After he received his green card in 2014, Adibhatla decided to explore a new path outside of banking.
"It’s important for me to stay in the city. It’s part of giving back to that system."
“The technology used there [in finance] is very cutting-edge, but I wanted to apply it in a more immediate sense,” he said.
Around that same time, he heard about NYU‘s Center for Urban Science and Progress and applied to its master’s program. In the fall of 2014, he enrolled. Adibhatla soon found that his new course of study tickled all his curiosities: namely, translating cutting-edge tech for the average person in order to address complicated issues.
“I like thinking about messy problems that are not binary in nature,” he said.
That isn’t to say Adibhatla doesn’t appreciate his past career in finance. New York City’s tech scene includes plenty of Wall Street alums — tech has officially surpassed Wall Street in creating local jobs — and some of them haven’t had kind things to say about their experience. But Adibhatla said it was a valuable training ground for his current work.
For one, urban-focused companies have a lot less room for failure than other startups. A buggy smartphone app is annoying, sure, but a malfunctioning transportation system could have serious economic and quality-of-life consequences. In finance, Adibhatla said, he had to deal with similar high stakes in his work, which has helped to smooth the transition.
“I just wanted to do technology,” he said. “Finance strengthens you as far as skills are concerned. The dividends are great for civic tech.”
Brooklyn as a Smart City
Although Adibhatla lives in Yorkville, in Manhattan, with his wife and their two cats, he’s personally a big fan of Brooklyn’s tech scene (and its pun competitions).
“I have fond feelings for Brooklyn,” he said. “It’s not replicating Silicon Valley.”
As we’ve noted before, Brooklyn is fast becoming a draw for manufacturing. The Urban Tech Hub continues that trend. According to Adibhatla, it’s a good place for urban-focused companies to work because it puts them in close proximity to a diverse group of customers: the city agencies and organizations who are potential partners, as well as the residents who will end up interacting with the technology on a regular basis.
“It allows you to think more holistically about tech,” he said.
In addition, Adibhatla said, he believes the Brooklyn Tech Triangle will be a significant source of talent in years to come. Among his duties as director of the Urban Tech Hub is to connect member companies with job candidates, and educational outreach is one way he plans to address that demand. For instance, earlier this summer, he visited high school students who were pitching startup ideas at Baruch College in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. This fall, he will also be teaching a course at NYU on civic analytics with Neil Kleiman, his mentor in graduate school.
The education component, for Adibhatla, is yet another means of public service. After he finished his program at NYU, he was offered a position in Silicon Valley, but he chose to stay in New York. “It’s important for me to stay in the city,” he said. “It’s part of giving back to that system.”
Besides, his new position has yielded personal benefits, too.
“My dad and I didn’t have a lot to talk about, because he was so into mechanical things, and I dealt with code,” he said. “Now that I’m working in the Navy Yard, I can’t stop talking about it all with him.”