A Night at Union Square Ventures: NYU-Poly Talks Up Incubator Success

7/29/13Follow @jpruth

Fred Wilson opened the doors at Union Square Ventures last Thursday night to let folks from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (commonly referred to as NYU-Poly) talk up the jobs and other positive influences their incubators have had on New York’s economy.

Alumni and current tenants came out to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the NYU-Poly incubator program, which maintains facilities in Brooklyn and Manhattan. More than 100 companies have thus far worked out of the incubators, created more than 900 jobs, and collectively raised more than $60 million in equity funding. Graduates of the incubators include Social Amp, acquired last year by Merkle; nRelate, which offers up Web content related to websites users are already reading; and CreativeWorx (see below). Based on a study conducted by NYU Stern and Harley & Co., startups from the incubators are expected to have created some 2,600 jobs by 2015.

Micah Kotch, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at NYU-Poly, says startups at the incubators get access to talent, customers, capital, and other services that can help them mature: “If we’re doing all those things right we should be moving people through the pipeline, getting them in, getting them out, and getting them funded.” NYU-Poly looks for startups with high growth potential, he says, that also develop technology for real problems. “There are a lot of companies developing products or features that might not be operating in Pasteur’s quadrant. We want things that ultimately are,” Kotch says, comparing innovation that does not address needs in society to technology that does.

NYU cultivates entrepreneurs from its faculty and students, he says, as well as other outlets and provides them with resources to commercialize their ideas. This includes programs that foster business model creation and getting on the street to speak to potential customers. “They might find at the end of that journey that they don’t have a real business, but I guarantee that they will never do research the same,” Kotch says.

There may be a plethora of other incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces in New York, but Kotch says the diversity of industries here means there is room for multiple organizations such as Blueprint Health and Women in Mobile. The rise of shared office spaces in particular, he says, also speaks to changes in the way people work. “If you’re a freelance designer, people want to work around other people, and there are a lot of spaces that cater to that,” Kotch says.

Getting into the NYU-Poly program about a year and a half ago helped Mark Hirsch, the CEO and founder of CreativeWorx, during a transformative period. His startup pivoted three weeks into its six-month stay at NYU-Poly’s Varick Street incubator.

And its story is instructive for anyone trying to build a software startup in New York. CreativeWorx, which developed a platform to help professional services firms be more productive, had been accepted into the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator but withdrew to pursue a contract with ad agency JWT. Hirsch says he then turned to NYU-Poly as an alternative place to build his company while focusing on that business deal.

The CreativeWorx platform tracks the user’s work activity in e-mail, Web browsers, and other software that is then associated with appropriate job codes. It can be used to create timesheets and reports to determine how many hours should be billed and to see what projects were worked on.

Hirsch says his company’s current plan of attack evolved from his original strategy after a bit of soul-searching at the incubator. “We were focused on [software] that would have required an enterprise to extract an existing workflow tool and put ours in,” he says, but admitted it was a hard pitch for a startup to sell. “No company is going to make that investment and put us at the backbone of their operation regardless of how good our product was.”

JWT gave CreativeWorx a contract for a piece of the workflow platform, Hirsch says, for such functions as review, approval, and content management. Six months into the contract, though, he saw Box, Dropbox, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft become potential rivals in that sector. “It was obvious we would not survive if we continued doing that,” Hirsch says. He looked for something unique his company could offer and realized the way CreativeWorx extracted data from a person’s life might be the answer. The focus of the platform shifted to using data to help people in professional services pinpoint what they were doing at any given time. “That is the sort of granularity these companies need,” he says. “Humans can’t do that.”

After graduating from the NYU-Poly incubator, CreativeWorx moved into office space in the same building as General Assembly and is generating revenue, Hirsch says.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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