As 2016 comes to a close, there’s a term many early adopters and tech fiends thought would have been on the tip of their luddite friends’ tongues: 3D printing. The 2013 opening of MakerBot in Brooklyn was what some thought to be a watershed moment for the 3D printing and advanced manufacturing industry, but three years later the project was shuttered. Now, despite that failure, the city has taken the mantle of bringing the industry to the forefront with a stable of programs created to spur innovation by providing space and capital.
The Next Top Makers initiative from the New York City Economic Development Corporation is one of them, a community-sourced incubator dedicated to connecting independent innovation with local production. The program closely supports six selected teams of product entrepreneurs or “Fellows” for seven months with cash, mentorships, business experts, and other benefits. Of the six companies from the last class, two are still operating. But considering the private sector’s slow move toward the industry, the city’s investment belies both the difficulty in kickstarting manufacturing, and the difference between providing a product and service versus a platform and service.
Leslie Hirsch, Director of New York City Labor Market Information Service, is optimistic yet cautious about the fate of advanced manufacturers in the city. When asked why New York City was such a good place to start a business, Leslie laughed. “We just are not specializing in industry,” she said. “There are some exceptions to the rule, but by and large when you look at any manufacturing survey, the really hardest thing for them is affording the space.”
She then lauded the collaborative and experimenting atmosphere in the city. “What we are excelling at is the prototyping and the innovating,” she said. “It’s helping to draw people here who are interested in participating in an ecosystem. Those incubators and maker spaces are really good for that.” The digital.nyc website lists over 100 such spaces, where companies like DogParker and BonBouton were created.
Thuy Fan is one of the co-founders of BonBouton, a company that 3D prints graphene sensor arrays that can be used for pathophysiological or biotech applications. His company has banked early on both 3D printing and the manufacturing of graphene, another industry poised to disrupt manufacturing. BonBouton “prints” graphene oxide and reduces it at nearly 400 °F to create molecule-thin sensors for monitoring skin temperature, heart rate, sweating, and muscle motion. Fan hopes to be one of the first advanced manufacturers to create an interface that can be used for a wide variety of external applications.
“In order to begin adaptation, products have to fit into the manufacturing cycle,” Fan said, referring to the process of creating something for wide-scale use. “What I saw is a lot of companies were making smart clothes that tend to use a more specialized manufacturing method, which works, but isn’t really scalable in a mass sense. What we did was tried to develop our product with this in mind.” Fan seemed to want BonBouton to be the purveyor of the Model T of smart clothes, saying “the challenge of creating smart clothes is to come in with an interface between the textile part and the electronics part.”
On the other side of the spectrum of the advanced manufacturing sector is Chelsea Brownridge, the CEO and Founder of DogParker, which officially launched in November after over a year of development and testing. The company provides smartphone-enabled dog houses for shoppers to leave their pets in. The houses have cameras so shoppers can check in on their dogs, UVC lamps to keep the houses clean, and of course a feature to lock and unlock the houses for only the owner. Brownridge described how DogParker thrived by providing a physical product in a world where the ‘Internet of Things’ is the next thing.
“Because of connected devices and the Internet of Things – being a buzzy phrase – hardware is no longer a piece of equipment,” she said. “Because you can make devices smart, they’re no longer something that just has to be industrial or back-end.” Rather than consider her company an advanced manufacturer-enabled platform, like Bonbouton, she sees it as a sharing-based advanced-manufactured product. “If not for Zipcar and CitiBike, our model would not be familiar to people, she said. “The idea of signing up for a membership and using a shareable economy doghouse is more comfortable for people than it ever has been before.”
The difference in execution for BonBouton and DogParker is endemic to the advanced manufacturing industry, according to some experts. In a report entitled “The Maker Economy in Action: Entrepreneurship and Supportive Ecosystems in Chicago, New York and Portland,” researchers spotted a “bifurcation in New York between the world of hardware (“bots) and the world of artisanal manufacturing (“bags” and “bites”), as their associated entrepreneurs occupy distinct niches in the capital and consumer markets.”
Though DogParker and BonBouton both differ in their end consumers and end users, their weak points both come with positives going into the new year. DogParker has only its two founders as employees, but has raised $1.2M in early stage capital from Asimov Ventures and Entrepreneurs Roundtable. And while BonBouton only has the funding of the Next Top Makers Program, they’ve added up to ten employees and launched their pilot program, allowing brands to try their “data ribbon” that works with its smart clothes platform. Both companies also fall in line with what some experts thinks can lead to sustained success for advanced manufacturers in the city.
Laura Wolf-Powers, a visiting research scholar at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, and one of the authors of the previous report, believes New York City has the potential to reinvigorate its manufacturing economy through partnerships like the Next Top Makers Program. Her report, ‘Planning, social infrastructure, and the maker movement: The view from New York City,’ examines a handful of the maker spaces, incubators and similar programs dedicated to developing advanced manufacturers.
The report sees growth of the industry as both “a way of diversifying the city’s economy away from its dependency on the finance and tourism industry and as an opportunity for the growth of linked sectors such as advertising, banking and other producer services.” Wolf-Powers also claimed the industry benefits from having so many similarly-minded companies clustered in the City. “There’s a tendency to gravitate towards what’s new and cutting edge in the city,” she said. “There’s also a lot of attention to how incumbent talent and strength in the economy can be adapted into new industries. NYC’s economy is extremely diverse, which is a strength.”
Still, the success of both companies depends their abilities to translate concepts to products, no matter for consumers walking their dogs or brands who want body data. Laura Wolf-Powers stated the importance of programs like the Next Top Makers. “From a planning perspective, the program contributes to the development of industry sectors in which market failures prevent startups companies from moving from concept validation to commercialization and production,” she said. If companies like DogParker and BonBouton can make that move, then this program, the advanced manufacturers involved, and perhaps the industry as a whole may be here to stay.