Mention Queens to a New Yorker and you’re more likely to hear about its Greek food or Citifield than about tech startups—but some folks in the borough are working to change that.
A small number of startups have put Queens on the map as a potential place for the city’s expanding tech industry. Local advocates and business leaders believe the borough’s immigrant population—combined with affordable real estate and the promise of better amenities—could attract more companies to join its nascent tech scene and generate more jobs.
In comparison to the number of startups in Manhattan or Brooklyn, which house more than 95 percent of the city’s tech companies, growth in Queens is small. But Jukay Hsu, founder of Coalition for Queens, a tech-business advocacy group, says Queens has plenty of untapped resources in its immigrant population.
“It’s a tremendously diverse borough,” said Hsu. “Immigrants are very entrepreneurial and they can help contribute to the growing tech scene.”
The technology sector made tremendous gains in New York City during the past five years, with 486 digital start-ups formed in New York City between 2007 and 2012, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future.
This year, Queens tech businesses have grown by 6 percent to 28 companies, according to the Bloomberg administration’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
The most prominent is Shapeways, a 3-D printing startup in Long Island City, Queens that lets users upload and print their own 3-D designs. Founder Peter Weijmarshausen moved to New York City from the Netherlands to launch the U.S. branch of the company.
It took Weijmarshausen time to gain footing in the city, said Elisa Richardson, a Shapeways spokeswoman.
“New York is very different from a small community in the Netherlands,” Richardson said. “It was a big of a challenge for [Weijmarshausen] to find the right peers.”
But in 2010, Shapeways secured $5 million in funding from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures and eventually built its 3-D printing factory in Long Island City, Queens. The company remains an active participant in the startup community in both Manhattan and Queens.
Second-generation immigrants from Queens are another source of tech innovation.
One example is Michael Chiang, who was born and raised in Queens to Chinese immigrant parents. In 2012, Chiang launched MatchPuppy, a website that sets up dogs on playdates. Chiang said his parents’ entrepreneurial spirit and his community in Queens inspired him to launch his startup.
“It was very hard to build something on my own,” Chiang said. “But being born and raised and still living here, I am deeply grounded in New York City.”
Hsu believes that there could be hundreds more founders like Chiang in Queens, but they lack resources.
“Access and networking always help in tech,” Hsu said. “And immigrants who don’t have access and don’t have the understanding of the tech ecosystem might find it more difficult to get these opportunities.”
To fix this, Coalition for Queens frequently hosts information sessions and networking events for immigrants to gain access to the tech community.
Some are less optimistic. It’s too early for talk of a Queens tech boom for David Giles, a researcher at the Center for an Urban Future.
“Tech is not going to flourish everywhere,” Giles said, “Tech companies want amenities. They want to be in a creative community, and that’s why Brooklyn is growing.”
Chiang remains hopeful, however, particularly in anticipation of Cornell’s New York City tech university, which is expected to open on Roosevelt Island in 2017. The close proximity of the campus to Queens and easy access through the F-train could mean a boon for Queens technology firms.
“Right now, we’re really creating a structure in Queens,” Chiang said. “And startups are going to continue to be created by the next generations of kids who are born here.”