Lawrence, Gotsch, Tantoco & Others Talk Growing Startups in Cities

Xconomy New York — 

Everyone expects technology communities to spur growth, and seeing it happen outside of Silicon Valley is far from guaranteed—but it could be crucial for the economy.

That was the crux of a discussion on strategies for encouraging startups to develop and scale up in various cities. “For us as a country, to have all of our eggs in one tech basket—Silicon Valley—is not a good strategy,” said Maria Gotsch, president and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City.

She spoke on a panel during last week’s conference on Future of Urban Innovation: Startups, hosted by Columbia University and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Gotsch was joined by Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup; Minerva Tantoco, chief technology officer for the City of New York; Douglas Cole, general partner, Flagship Ventures based in Cambridge, MA; and Chelsea Rao, vice president of business services with Empire State Development.

The discussion was moderated by Eric Gertler, executive vice president and managing director for the center for economic transformation in the NYC Economic Development Corp.

There has been a shift in New York, said Lawrence, from the days when people moved to the city and got jobs in tech more as a byproduct of other factors in their lives. After companies such as Google and Facebook opened offices here, perceptions changed about the local innovation scene. Now people increasingly come to the innovation scene here to work on new tech, she said.

Furthermore, companies already rooted here have started to fill their ranks with more workers with tech skills. “You look at Citi, Goldman Sachs, or The New York Times, and they often refer to themselves as tech companies now because of the amount of tech hiring they’re doing,” Lawrence said.

A study released last year, she said, showed more than half of the tech jobs in New York were with companies that are not primarily identified as tech-based.

Of late, life sciences has been percolating in New York; though Gertler said if the city is in its teenage years with respects to technology, then it is just “in its infancy when it comes to life sciences.”

The city has some catching up to do in this sector, yet the groundwork is there. In Boston, Cole said, biotech is already a central part of that community’s mindset for innovation. But such trends typically emerge on their own, he said, not from a predetermined scheme. “It’s not like somebody in Cambridge or San Francisco 20 or 30 years ago said ‘We’re going to be big in biotech,’” he said.

Factors that affect a city’s startup scene, Cole said, include whether there is technology coming out of local academic institutions, as well as the availability of real estate. “As New York has aspirations to become the next big biotech center, its bona fides, in terms of research at universities, are without question,” he said.

That still leaves the matter of attracting people to develop ideas and work at such startups, Cole said. The challenges New York faces building up its innovation scene are relatable for other towns and urban centers. “Everyone is working to build communities and economies that are thriving in their own cities,” Lawrence said.

Maria Gotsch, CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

Maria Gotsch, CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City. (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth)

During its first 10 years, Gotsch said, New York’s tech scene was largely about digital media and e-commerce. For the next decade, she said, the city should see growth coming from other sectors, such as manufacturing. Gotsch also said public-private partnerships are important to support the development of a tech hub. “To do anything difficult, you can’t rely on one entity,” she said.

Diversity among founders is also a growing part of New York’s innovation community, said Tantoco, citing a report from CrunchBase on the concentration of startups with women founders. “In fact, they list the [percentage] of women founders in Brooklyn as more than anywhere else in the country,” she said. As a whole, New York ranked fifth on that list.

Looking at the overall needs for economic growth and innovation, Lawrence said though people now are taught to use technology, more early education is needed to train people to create technology. “It’s not just about teaching coding,” she said. “It’s great, and it’s a huge component, but there’s a bigger picture in critical thinking.” That includes computer science and computational thinking skills. Such lessons also need to be accessible to more than afterschool programs with limited groups of students. “Until it gets integrated into the entire public education system, it won’t reach every child,” she said. That does not mean every kid will want to pursue tech careers but “they will have a choice and the exposure,” Lawrence said.