ReadWrite sat down recently with Robinson Hernandez, Executive Director of the Urban Tech Hub at Grand Central Tech — an innovative workspace dedicated to smart cities technologies — to get his thoughts on the role of startups in government and how they can successfully navigate working with the public sector.
ReadWrite: Tell us about yourself, your background, and your current role at Grand Central Tech (GCT).
Robinson Hernandez: Growing up as the son of Colombian immigrants in Queens, I was the first member of my family to go to college. After earning a scholarship to Regis High School, and then Boston College, I worked at GE and an early e-government startup, but found my calling in public service. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on helping entrepreneurs and helping them navigate the public sector to make it easier for people in New York to open and run businesses. At GCT we share that mission – to work with entrepreneurs and help them grow their businesses. In my role at The Hub – GCT’s third tech space – I focus specifically on tech startups that address urban challenges, like using data to make urban transit more efficient, for example.
RW: What is the business model behind GCT and how does it work to advance innovation in NYC? How can this be applied to cities around the world?
RH: GCT started with a unique business model. The co-founders offered startups a place to work rent-free and we took no equity. The idea was to help entrepreneurs grow as best as we could by fostering an environment where they could meet and work with other companies at early stages of development. Since GCT took off, we’ve launched two additional spaces in the same building that host startups at more mature stages of development. These companies pay rent at a very modest rate. This model helps us attract the very best companies in New York, who are then able to learn from each other. We’ve essentially created a vertical tech ecosystem through these different spaces.
RW: What, to you, makes a smart city, smart?
RH: I believe the smartest cities are ones that take advantage of public-private partnerships to serve their citizens. For example, we’ve received funding from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to help get urban tech businesses off the ground and have also brought in corporate partners like GE, Lowe’s, and Microsoft who serve as mentors to these companies. These urban tech companies are able to leverage this support to address pressing urban challenges in order to make life better for everyone in the city. One example is a current tenant of ours called iobeam, which powers real-time monitoring and insights for connected hardware so that cities can better use data to serve people.
RW: What role do other public and private partners play in your business model?
RH: We’ve been fortunate to work with Milstein Properties since the beginning, which has been generous in providing real estate for all of our startups. NYCEDC has also been a great partner critical to getting us to where we are today.
RW: What role does the Internet of Things (IoT) play in smart cities? Is it a key factor for success?
RH: The Internet of Things is certainly a key factor for developing smarter cities. Information that used to be unattainable we can now monitor in real time and it’s exciting to see the way cities are using all of this new information. It has ramifications for transit, public safety, and more.
RW: What role do startups play in Smart Cities?
RH: Startups inherently approach the world in a different way. They come with a fresh perspective and innovative ideas. We can leverage that energy to shape the way our cities address major challenges, from climate change to public safety. One of our tenants, Bloc Power, has built a platform to develop clean energy projects in American inner cities. By leveraging technology, they have the ability to improve life for hundreds of thousands that are sometimes overlooked by larger companies.
RW: What initiatives have you put in place to support smart cities? What has worked and what hasn’t?
RH: When I worked for the City I launched the New Business Acceleration Team (NBAT), an inter-agency initiative that provided new businesses with streamlined services to navigate government regulations, including, for example, expedited design reviews and regulatory inspections that allow new businesses to open more quickly. We reduced the average amount of time it took to open a new business by 2.5 months. NBAT helped more than 7,000 new businesses open, generating more than 50,000 jobs in NYC.
RW: What is your advice for any city, citizen, startup, or private partner looking to support smart city development?
RH: Embrace public-private coordination because there are plenty of great private businesses out there that can help government work better for people, and there are steps the public sector can take to foster innovation and creativity among entrepreneurs. My advice to private partners looking to work closely with cities is to come to the table with ideas that benefit the people in your city. A smart city will welcome this kind of dialogue.
RW: How did your past experience prepare you for your role at GCT?
RH: For most of my entire career I’ve worked with entrepreneurs on identifying ways to make opening and running businesses easier. I know the challenges that entrepreneurs face and the hoops they have to jump through to get an idea off the ground. So at GCT I’ve been able to bring a certain amount of public sector expertise to the job. One of the things I do best is bring people together toward a common goal. So, for example, one enormous barrier for immigrant business owners in New York was not being able to take advantage of city services because they do not speak English. So we spearheaded a program to reach out to business owners in more than 14 languages and raise awareness of programs the city was offering. We need to be creative in reaching out to the diverse community our city offers.
RW: What advantages does New York offer over Silicon Valley to startups?
RH: New York is the global center for so many industries – finance, fashion, media, and more. More and more, the public and private sectors are beginning to realize what an asset that is to tech startups. At GCT, we are literally at the center of the business world, in midtown Manhattan. Particularly for startups focused on urban challenges, there’s no better place to work because you’re living and breathing urban life every day. We are also a natural test pilot in how the tech community applies technology to an urban environment. What better place to test out tech than the greatest City in the world.
RW: How does GCT help create diversity in tech?
RH: Creating a more inclusive tech community is central to Grand Central Tech’s mission, and we’re proud that 46% of our 2016-2017 class of startups were founded by women, minorities or veterans. That will always be something we focus on as we try to build a tech community that more resembles the cities we live in.
RW: What does “urban tech” mean?
RH: Urban tech, to me, means a focus on real problems facing citizens in metropolitan areas like New York. New Yorkers have always embraced innovative ideas if it means buses and trains will run more efficiently and infrastructure works better for our living and working spaces. Our job is to get some of these ideas in motion.