By Chip Meakem
Last week I spent the afternoon at the new Columbia Startup Lab on Varick Street. It’s a great space with an incredible vibe. Congrats to Columbia for physically instantiating its support for entrepreneurship. If you have an idea and some affiliation with Columbia, you now have a great space to make it happen.
The private market for co-working spaces is thriving and meaningfully helping the startup ecosystem…but what could the public sector do?
Quick story – I’m an investor in a China-based VC firm and a few years ago I went to Beijing to visit a bunch of companies (and of course see the Great Wall). One afternoon I drove out to see a company in an abandoned, post apocalyptic neighborhood. There were literally blocks and blocks of identical 3-story cinder block buildings. In the center were three, 10-story buildings with no finished lobbies, just concrete stairs going up. My driver pointed and told me that’s where my next meeting was. I have no shame admitting I was legitimately scared getting out of the car.
I walked up the exposed stairs and there was Linda Wu, founder of a cool gaming company. She quickly explained that the neighborhood had been worker housing for a coal fired power plant. When the plant was shut down due to pollution, everybody was moved out and the three office towers were converted to 100% free space – free rent, power, Internet, water, etc., for companies. Within sixty days 30 floors of offices were packed with startups. Apparently there are dozens of these in and around Beijing.
As you saw in a previous blog post, our TVP team went fishing last month in the East River and New York Harbor. Looking at all those old warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront I can’t help but think what would happen if New York State and/or NYC converted those old buildings to free startup space. At ~$500 per desk the co-working spaces are helping to spur on entrepreneurship and groups like Columbia are stepping up too but what would free space do? If it can happen in a burnt out Beijing neighborhood, why not here? I know it’s not that simple, but maybe it could be.