Here’s your Make It in Brooklyn recap
June 29, 2015
In the last several years, Brooklyn-based manufacturing and innovation has rocketed to international repute. If the ‘00s saw the popular explosion of Brooklyn music and arts, the ‘10s have seen the borough become synonymous with the maker culture. From 2003 to 2013, there was a 125% jump in the number of creative firms operating in Brooklyn—from 815 to 1,831. From the food renaissance in north Brooklyn to the creative manufacturing boom in Sunset Park and the cultural explosion of Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, the future of Brooklyn culture is undeniably bright.
Much of this innovation is happening in creatively revitalized waterfront manufacturing zones—like Industry City and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle of Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But in truth, the maker culture simmers on a more miniature level throughout the borough, in former factories and studio spaces, in garages and apartments. Why not bring all those innovators out and have them interact together?
That was the impetus behind “Make It in Brooklyn,” the inaugural innovation summit organized by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership that took place June 25th at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
“There wasn’t a forum for the people working in the innovation economy in Brooklyn to come together and talk about the future of the borough,” said Tucker Reed, president of the DBP, who called on “innovators and trendsetters, modernizers and makers, builders and pace-setters, avant-gardists and entrepreneurs” to engage in conversation “about how to support Brooklyn’s continued ascent as an international center for commerce and culture.”
The full-day event consisted of panels, innovator show and tells, a food truck lunch, a surprise appearance from Brooklyn United Marching Band, and plenty of networking between entrepreneurs and business leaders, culminating with a pitch contest at Superfine, in DUMBO. All throughout, a sense of creative entrepreneurship and an unshakeable belief in the power of “Brooklyn” animated proceedings.
“Brooklyn is what I like to think of as a model 21st century urban ecosystem,” said Alicia Glen, the City’s Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, during her opening remarks. She estimated that there would be 1 million innovation economy jobs in Brooklyn by 2040, in sectors like advanced manufacturing, technology, design, e-commerce, and the sciences.
“Just to give us some context,” Glen added, “we have a little shy of 4 million jobs [in the innovation sector] in New York City in total.”
Glen also provided a capsule history of innovation in Brooklyn, from Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge to the first roller coaster, in Coney Island. “The tradition of innovation runs deep in the veins of the people of this borough,” she said.
First Brooklyn, Then the World
“Is Brooklyn done? Or is it the beginning?” Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Carlo Scissura asked the first panel of speakers assembled on the topic, “First Brooklyn, Then the World,” including corporate executives from Delta Air Lines, Brooklyn Brewery, Onexim Sports & Entertainment (which own the Brooklyn Nets), and Airbnb.
“Brooklyn went from being Manhattan’s ugly stepbrother to being the cool cousin that plays in a rock band and everyone wants to hang out with,” said Irina Pavlova, President of Onexim.
Wrede Petersmeyer, Airbnb’s New York manager, linked his company’s rise to the explosion of tourist interest in Brooklyn neighborhoods.
“I don’t think you can separate our growth in the city from the growth of neighborhoods having brands,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago, you couldn’t imagine the idea that someone living in Paris would want to not go to New York, but go to Williamsburg, spend time in Red Hook, visit a neighborhood that has an identity.”
That identity has been exported worldwide thanks in no small part to Brooklyn Brewery. Steve Hindy, Chairman and Co-Founder of the brewery, reminisced that when the company was started, in 1988, calling the beer “Brooklyn” was “risky.” Now, the beer is a hit overseas—exports account for 40 percent of sales.
The Real Estate Kings of Kings County
Of course, the heightened interest in all things Brooklyn has been a windfall for real estate developers. The second panel was a casual conversation between four powerful individuals from two influential firms: the father-son duo of David and Jed Walentas, of Two Trees Management, and Bruce Ratner and MaryAnne Gilmartin, of Forest City Ratner Companies.
The tone of the conversation was reflective, with Ratner and David Walentas launching into nostalgic reveries about coming up in the business in the ‘80s. Forest City Ratner got its start in Downtown Brooklyn, and despite the international success of Barclays Center, Bruce still holds MetroTech Center closest to heart.
“I walked through the Commons the other day, and it was filled with life,” he said. “It’s still the biggest deal for me.”
David Walentas reminisced about meeting Jay Z—“He’s a very smart, decent dude”—and Spike Lee. At one point, he congratulated Bruce:
“We did a good job,” he told him, eliciting a friendly pat on the arm from Ratner.
Ratner believes the technology boom is only beginning. “This borough will be known in 10 or 20 years as the equivalent of Silicon Valley,” he said. “I really believe that.”
Making Spaces for Manufacturing, the Arts, and Food
After the food truck lunch break, the three afternoon panels covered modern manufacturing in Brooklyn, the arts, and restaurant management.
WNYC’s Charlie Herman moderated the manufacturing panel, which consisted of David Calligeros, Founder of Remains Lighting; Diana Pincus, Plant Manager of Maker Bot; and Rick Mast, Co-Founder of Mast Brothers Chocolate. The group debated the relative merits and drawbacks of operating in Brooklyn: it’s expensive, and start-up costs can be borderline prohibitive, but as Pincus pointed out, “Brooklyn is itself a brand…and the fast-paced atmosphere is crucial to a new company.”
To reiterate the point, Rick Mast noted that “the future of manufacturing is localized manufacturing. People want to know where they stuff comes from, and that it has a story.”
One prominent theme of the day was the question of how to define Brooklyn’s future so that it doesn’t become a victim of its own success. Implicit in this reckoning is the recognition that a space must be maintained for less outright-profitable industries, like the arts, that nevertheless define Brooklyn’s character. The arts panel convened four cultural leaders to discuss that topic: James Bartlett, Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA); Susan Feldman, President and Artistic Director of St. Ann’s Warehouse; Tia Powell Harris, President and Executive Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center; and Dorothy Ryan, Managing Director of the Theatre for a New Audience. The talk was moderated by WNYC art critic Deborah Solomon.
The conference concluded with a discussion about how three restaurant entrepreneurs got started in the business—and the perils within. Jean Adamson, Emily Hyland, and Edward Song—of Vinegar Hill House, Emily, and Korilla BBQ, respectively—were joined onstage by editor-in-chief of VICE MUNCHIES, Helen Hollyman.
The panel, entitled “Disasters in Restaurant Management,” made good on the promise of its name when Hollyman asked each restauranteur to describe the “worst night of your life at work.” Emily Hyland recalled a roof collapse in the bathroom, while critics were eating in the dining area. Adamson told the story of a water main break during a private party for a celebrity.
“The room was flooded with raw sewage,” she said, to groans from the audience.
And Song grimly recounted the time his food truck broke down on the Triborough Bridge. It was in a better shape now, though—parked out front, serving tacos and burritos to the hundreds who’d come out to attend the summit.
The event culminated with a pitch contest located in DUMBO, where 10 companies vied for up to a $50,000 investment from DBP Board Co-Chairs MaryAnne Gilmartin and Bre Pettis. Five companies in the “maker” category and five companies in the “tech” company were given 2 minutes each to pitch and 4 minutes to field questions from an illustrious panel of judges. Startups ranged from a 3D-printed jewelry company to a mobile app that helps you find the nearest recycling bin to the night’s overall winner, Happy, an app that matches people looking for drinks to bars looking for people, all in real time.
A big thank you to all the sponsors who made the inaugural Make It in Brooklyn Innovation Summit a success:
- Platinum Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
- Gold Sponsor: Airbnb
- Silver Sponsors: NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and JP Morgan Chase
- Bronze Sponsors: 1Hotels, Allied Barton, CityRealty, DUMBO Heights, Industry City, Justworks, National Grid, and Woods Bagot
- Partners: BAM, Brooklyn Independent Media, Brooklyn Panorama, Brownstoner, DUMBO Improvement District, McKinsey & Company, Theatre for a New Audience, and WNYC
Stay tuned for full video recaps and photos to come soon on the Make It in Brooklyn website.