Q+A: Craig Wilson, Digital Future Lab
Are you an early-stage company working in virtual / augmented reality, video, cloud computing, or digital media -- and looking to take your company to the next level? The NYU Tandon Digital Future Lab may be the place for you. The Digital Future Lab was founded in 2012 right here in 20 Jay St. We sat down with Craig Wilson, General Manager, to learn more about this unique (and highly competitive!) incubator.
Read on for the back story. Interested in building your company at The Digital Future Lab? Apply here.
What's the NYU Tandon Digital Future Lab all about?
The NYU Tandon Digital Future Lab is a part of NYU Tandon’s network of startup business hubs with Data, Urban, and Veterans Future Lab. The Digital Future Lab was established with support from the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Two Trees Management in 2012. We are focused on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), video, cloud computing, or digital media. It sits underneath the Engineering School (Tandon) at New York University in partnership with the city and state of New York. Our mission is to grow technology and entrepreneurship within New York City and State and within the greater NYU community.
At any given time, we are incubating 7 - 12 companies at various stages of growth, and we help them get to their next milestone. “Incubator” is not exactly the right term: we keep companies for up to two years and currently don’t take any equity. We are doing this for economic development, not for our own profit. We’re not looking over a company’s shoulder, looking at their numbers every week. We treat companies as adults and work with them on what they actually need.
What resources do companies have access to while they're here?
On the Digital Lab Side, you have me and my partner JJ. Anything that we can help them with, we will. Given my background from the investing side, I can help companies with big picture visioning, and with a lot of general questions and operations.
On the NYU side, NYU faculty is available to help companies with technical problems. They also provide access to academic papers and other resources that are beneficial to the companies. This allows NYU faculty to plug into companies that they otherwise would not know, and gives companies access to academic expertise that they would otherwise not be able to access.
On the nuts and bolts side, we have our Law Firm — Orrick — who has sponsored us for a long time. Our lawyer Pete Fusco comes in and helps our companies with their legal work.
How is a company chosen to participate?
There are a few avenues. We do have an application process, so a company could apply directly. We also connect with potential companies through START-UP NY. The START-UP NY program helps new and expanding businesses through tax-based incentives and innovative academic partnerships–it's designated by Governor Cuomo. I also personally recruit companies myself. It’s pretty competitive: we accept 1 or 2 companies out of about every 100 companies that apply.
What makes a successful applicant?
Here’s the thing: we get lot of companies with similar ideas, so it really comes down to what I call their “demonstrated drive” — why do you care about this so much, that when everything goes wrong, you won’t give up? We also look at what we call “Founder market fit”—why is this person meant to do this thing? What about your story makes you unique? What qualifies you to start a company in this industry?
Interesting - so you're looking for a cult of personality, on some level.
Yes, because this is what enables an individual to tell a story effectively — and to tell a story effectively, you really have to care about it. When you’re fundraising, you have to convince others that you are worth it. When you’re hiring people, you need to convince others that whatever you’re building is amazing, and worth it (even with a pay cut.) And when you’re selling, you need to give others a reason to buy the product sometimes even before it is even made. That cult of personality plays into all of this. And of course — you have to be a good person!
We chose DUMBO because the neighborhood is a great entrepreneurial system. We share resources, expertise. There is a lot of digital talent around DUMBO and we have good relationships with other early stage companies. Folks really like working here. One of my earlier companies is called Kisi, they provide remote access for locks, they moved to the Navy yard and came back to DUMBO!
Is there a company or two that you're really excited about right now?
Oh yes, there are a few! I’ll give you three examples. The first is called “Paperspace” - they are powering artificial intelligence. Paperspace helps developers build artificial intelligence and machine learning applications with a software/hardware development platform powered by GPUs and other powerful chips. Co-founders Dan and Dillon are architects by training. Architecture requires intensive software for modeling, etc, and they got to thinking about whether they could run a device by powering it through the cloud. They provide like a dropbox-like software layer that powers artificial intelligence.
Second is “Carmera”, founded by Ro Gupta and Justin Day. They are powering the intelligence for driverless vehicles. If we assume that driverless cars will be the thing, we're going to need extensive data mapping on the back end to make it happen. That's the side they are working on.
Third is "MediVis" - which the DUMBO BID honored with a Dumbo Dozen Award last year. Osamah is neurosurgeon and Chris is a radiologist; they're both from NYU Langone. They do medical visualization – basically they use augmented reality / holographic visualization to transform medical and surgical practice. They rule. We actually have a few companies here that were founded by current NYU students. This is great, because it gives greater exposure to NYC; but we don’t only take NYU alums as discussed.
What's your favorite place in DUMBO?
Burrow is hands down my favorite place. You have to be careful walking into 68 Jay because of that pole! But I love it so much. The thing that makes Burrow great is the “big little details” — like how their iced coffee has coffee ice cubes in it.
What’s interesting is to see DUMBO turn into this tourist attraction, and then there are some really famous people that live here. There is a really weird, cool co-existence; I can’t explain it but it’s awesome. I walk the same walk every day, too: I go from my desk to to the park and walk to the Battle of Brooklyn sign and tap it. The park is amazing, watching it go all the way around the river–it’s amazing. I play soccer twice a week in Brooklyn Bridge Park too, and it’s amazing to be able to stare at the skyline while playing.