Innovate NYC: The Rise of Small Tech Startups in the Big Apple

If you don’t think it is already, New York City is poised to be the tech capital of the world.

I sat down with my good friend, Chris Corrado, a Staten Island native studying Computer Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, to talk about tech startups in our hometown of New York City. He has worked for Nomura and currently works at Susquehana International Group. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Peter: Chris, we go way back, and it seems like yesterday that we were in the Scouts where we had no electronics on our camping trips. And now where when we visit the ol’ Troop on their excursions and the little guys have the latest tech gear.

Chris: I know, tell me about it. These kids don’t know what it used to be like, with Mr. Jim chewing us out every time he saw a phone screen! But that’s reality, once something like a new piece of technology gets off the ground it takes a life of its own.

Peter: So listen, you and me are both East Coast guys, we’re New Yorkers. What’s the deal with all these startup companies in NYC? Shouldn’t they all be in Silicon Valley on the other side of the country? If I had a quarter for every one I came across here I’d be my own venture capitalist firm!

Chris: Yea, I mean there are quite a lot of small tech start-ups that you may (or may not have) heard of in 2013. And a lot of them are calling New York home instead of Silicon Valley now. There’s that saying “there’s an app for everything”, but now the new one is “there’s a startup for everything” Look for a technology job in New York City; you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’m a 4/5 at Stevens Institute of Technology (just across the Hudson in New Jersey) studying Computer Engineering. It’s amazing to see how many technology entrepreneurs there are in New York. If there was any hope in humanity left, faith restored. Technology has become a driving force for 21st century innovation and it’s amazing to be a part of it. I hope the trend you alluded to continues in New York.

Peter: So now you just mentioned your college career over at Stevens. As much as I dislike Jersey (I’m not really sure why, it’s a New York thing I guess), you bring up a good point. NYC is the new place to be if you’re involved in technology. New York has to do two things now to make sure that this trend continues: it has to support innovative education in the Greater New York City area in funding programs for Computer Science, Engineering, IT, etc; and it also has to incentivize individuals and companies and other rent-seekers to double down here.

Chris: Right, I think Stevens is a good example, even though it’s in Jersey, but a good chunk of the students live and work in NYC.  We can’t make every school tech focused, but there has to be a way to incentivize the individual student to pursue coursework in these subjects, maybe through things like grants and contests. Stevens’ prides itself on being the Innovation University in the fields of Science, Technology, and Engineering. It almost isn’t fair how close we are to NYC. Technology roots from a genuine interest in making things around us better, and Stevens is a good place to look at for making things better. Just recently, we had a team enter into the Solar Decathlon which is happening over in Irvine, California in October 2013. It won’t be the first time Stevens entered into the Decathlon, either. You can see the house develop if you happen to be in Hoboken walking along River Street. Making alternative energies a reality is important for economic growth as well as operational efficiency of everyday tasks.

Peter: Ok so you answered the question and just made your sales pitch to prospective students who are considering Stevens all in one response, bravo. Another thing to consider too, I think, is that the real money is in lower Manhattan. The financial district is home to the New York Stock Exchange and some of the top global financial corporations.

Chris: Absolutely. Not only does New York City have prime real estate for innovative tech companies to start up and grow their ventures (because everyone knows that NYC is the capital of the world) – but it also has a lot of capital to help make New York City the tech capital of the world. That being said, having worked for a few of these financial institutions on the technology side of things, I’d like to lay out two observations that I feel are worth mentioning.

Peter: Let’s hear it.

Chris: Ok, first of all, technology in the finance industry is almost always used as a means toward an end, not as an end in itself. In other words, technology is used to promote and ease the way of doing business. For example, stock trading is almost entirely done with a computer nowadays.

Next, check out Forbes’ Top 10 financial services companies to work for (mine, SIG, was number 1!). You’ll find that SIG has more employees that focus on technology than we do on actual business. This is rare, and I find this rarity a little troubling.

Lastly, I’ve noticed there are constraints on when you can do things on the technology side within said financial companies. I’m sure over at Google, Dropbox, or even Vine, they don’t mind if you start tinkering with an environment to make it better. (In fact, that’s a good chunk of their job descriptions…) Finance is a different animal; it requires patience and a high level of inference. If you can be successful in finance and understand how technology works with the business, there is nothing stopping you from innovation. On the other side, if it looks like it may look like a bad decision, yeah. Don’t touch it.

Peter: So what is it you’re trying to get at here?

Chris: I’m sort of using the finance example as a dead end for technology. Places that allow for more innovation like Google or similar companies allow for more technological growth.

Peter: Thanks for clearing that up. But who’s to say that these financial companies don’t have an experimental technology department, or that they invest in and fund tech companies to acquire their solutions and applications and hardware?

Chris: They probably do, but most of them are not nearly as dynamic. SIG is an exception. Most companies are focused on promoting the business root of it all, but if technology is going to expand beyond where it is, businesses that focus on innovation have to be a priority. Finance companies that rely on technology to grow don’t necessarily contribute to that growth itself, they throw money at the problem. In other words, they more or less fund it by doing what you say, contracting with HP, Dell, etc.

Peter: But from an economic standpoint, I thought that division of labor was a good thing. Am I wrong now?

Chris: What do you mean?

Peter: Shoemakers focus on making shoes, Mechanics work on cars, and Finance guys are good at finance, so they focus on that. If there is a need within a company that falls outside of its expertise, you acquire that solution from someone who can fulfill that need.

Chris: Right. A technology founded and created from an innovative company. Not necessarily the finance company. Finance guys always want the latest and greatest stuff. They’re like the kids with the big pockets that can get all the cool toys!

Peter: So what you’re saying is that what is needed is not more companies that rely on technology to grow, but rather the other way around? More tech companies that relies on capital to grow? What about the market getting flooded?

Chris: I think that’s what all of these start ups exactly are. And I think that’s where we’re headed. The saying “less is more” shouldn’t apply at this stage of the game. And when it comes to technology, the more the better, because there will always be someone out there with new and better ideas. The market can certainly get flooded with subpar startups but I think those will be filtered out by or consolidated with other really significant ones. Hate to say it but a situation like Vine and Instagram where one trumps the other is proof of that. It’ll probably work itself out.

Peter: I know I’m the more politically savvy one, but I want to ask if you have any comments on what the next Mayor of New York City can do to continue the tech trend.

Chris: Sure. In his third term, Mayor Bloomberg made it pretty clear that he wants technology entrepreneurs to continue coming in and remain in the city. He put a lot of effort behind the We are Made in New York initiative, an online resource that highlights hundreds of tech startups and links them with other New York City based tech companies. That’s a program that’s here to stay and the next Mayor should try to find more ways to get all these people talking. The next Mayor may also want to consider tax incentives for startups that choose to make their home here; that’ll mean more money in their pockets to invest in their venture.

Peter: Ok, so all in all, if you want to be surrounded by and succeed in the technology field today, NYC has what you’re looking for in some way shape or form.

Chris: That’s right. And while we aren’t at the point of having malleable liquid crystal phone screens just yet, at least we have cool windows to look forward to.

Peter: Chris, always great talking to you, but we’re out of time. Next time we’ll have to talk Cyber-security. It’s become a buzzword on the political front, and but I’d like it if our readers can get your take on some Cyber-security issues. Until next time.

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