New Start-Up Incubator Brings Tech Scene to Harlem


Harlem may not be the first location that comes to mind when mapping out the geographical hot spots for technology start-ups, but a recently launched incubator is trying to put the New York City neighborhood on the map.

IncubateNYC, which was founded by Marcus Mayo and Brian Shields, two entrepreneurs with backgrounds in banking, consulting and private equity, aims to help start-ups at all stages of development grow their ideas and businesses by leveraging Harlem’s resources.

“The first step is getting a conversation going and letting people who are interested in launching start-ups know that Harlem is a great place to do it,” said Shields.

Mayo points to the availability of real estate and a reputation as one of the most culturally recognizable neighborhoods in New York City as just a few attributes that make the historic area a logical destination for start-ups.

"Entrepreneurs are excited about leveraging the history that Harlem has and continuing to build on top of it," Mayo said.

Mayo and Shields said they noticed that the recent influx of technology companies into New York City has largely been limited to a few neighborhoods.

According to a study released last month by the Center for an Urban Future, only Silicon Valley surpasses the Big Apple as a hub for technology-related start-up activity. The study shows that since 2007, 486 digital start-ups formed in New York City have successfully secured angel, seed or venture capital funding.

However, as Mayo and Shields suspected, 71 percent of those start-ups are concentrated in just nine zip codes in mid- and lower-Manhattan.

Mayo and Shields said they dreamt of boosting entrepreneurship in Harlem for years. So when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Economic Development Corporation released a request for proposal for a Harlem-based small business incubator this past November, the pair took it as confirmation that it was time to bring their ideas to life.

The duo submitted a proposal, but has not waited around while the City still works on determining a winner.

Since launching formally in December 2011, Shields and Mayo have been working in a borrowed space and have collaborated steadily with more than 10 start-ups, offering incubation services ranging from counseling to providing access to lawyers, accountants and potential investors.

"What we're providing is an environment for entrepreneurs to collaborate, share ideas and work together to take those ideas to the next level," Mayo said.

The pair highlighted their work with a young company that aims to provide automatic digital payment processing in retail stores.

IncubateNYC helped the company’s founder recruit a technical co-founder and begin testing her product in select markets across the United States. Shields and Mayo, however, said this is just the beginning of the kind of resources they hope to offer entrepreneurs who make the trip uptown to work with them.

While IncubateNYC is just a few months old, it has already attracted some high-profile partners.

Through collaborations with Columbia University and Google, IncubateNYC has helped the start-ups it works with connect to engineers, platform solutions and product development support.

"What a lot of entrepreneurs who have ideas are lacking is that spark that says 'go do it' and someone to say 'we believe in you,'" Shields said.

With the opening of its own offices, which will be located at 125th St. and Lenox Avenue, slated for later this year, Mayo and Shields said they aim to broaden IncubateNYC's efforts to provide structure, working spaces and networking opportunities for businesses looking to come to market.

Amara Omeokwe is a TV producer for CNBC.