Entrepreneur

Near Grand Central, a new tech community takes root

Above: Grand Central Tech managing directors Charlie Bonello (left) and Matt Harrigan (right).

Image Credit: Harrison Weber / VentureBeat
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Zero rent. Zero equity. Twelve months.

That’s a promise from Matt Harrigan and Charlie Bonello, the duo behind the soon-to-launch Grand Central Tech (GCT) accelerator. Backed by the legendary Milstein family and housed in Facebook’s former NY office (a 15,000 sq ft space overlooking Grand Central Terminal), GCT has a bold vision to build a community that opens New York’s tech scene to all walks of life — from high school students to middle-aged professionals not normally welcomed by the ageist startup world.

GCT is like a wholesome, business-model-free counterpart to traditional accelerators; and that’s because GCT has different goals. “Trying to make the most money possible makes it very hard to build a virtuous community,” says Harrigan. “Truthfully, if we build a virtuous community, the revenue will come. Charlie and I just personally are thinking about changing the tech sector in New York in some small way — that’s a pretty worthwhile reason to get up in the morning.”

GCT isn’t, however, about project for social-good startups. Instead, Harrigan and Bonello are out to strengthen New York’s tech community.

VentureBeat interviewed the duo and toured the former Facebook office, where the marketing and sales teams once sat. It’s now a gutted framework for what GCT will soon become.

Matt Harrigan: This was all marketing and sales. They had the entire 17th floor. The concept here is that we’re accepting 12 to 20 companies — it’ll be determined by the number of participants in each company and the number of desks we have available. We’ll accept them. They’ll pay no rent, no equity for a year.

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VentureBeat: You’ve got a lot of room for 20 companies. Are we talking three employees per company or 15?

Matt Harrigan: That’s where the range comes in — if it’s 15 people per company, then it’ll be a smaller number of companies. A lot of it is determined by the quality of applicant.

VentureBeat: Pre-funding and post-funding companies?

Harrigan: We honestly haven’t written any rules yet. I liken it to a college admissions process; we want a diverse class. We want to build a class of people who will continue to support each other over time. A big theme you’ll hear Charlie and I refer to is our intention to build a community, a very productive community that broadens the impact tech can have. When companies are done here, we want them to want to stay in the building and go upstairs and take additional space.

VentureBeat: This almost feels wholesome.

Harrigan: That’s actually a word we use a lot. Our objective is to truly generate a wholesome community that is comprehensive. There’s a lot of focus in New York on building something that immediately has a straight line to major profitability and an exit. As a result, tech kind of stands apart in terms of the potential benefit it could be delivering to all of New York City.

We’re creating a community where tech becomes an engine for growth that a lot of different people can benefit from — by bringing in area high schools so young people can be exposed to tech, and bringing in corporate partners so that they’re not exclusively disrupted by startups.

VentureBeat: Is that not happening enough already?

Harrigan: What sets us apart, to be clear, is that we’re taking a comprehensive approach. I think most accelerators and incubators concentrate on doing one thing well.

VentureBeat: I think their focus is on making money, which is not a bad thing to do.

Harrigan: No, it’s not. Money is the best mechanism for measuring success. That’s their ingoing objective.

Charlie Bonello: And it’s a very elegant model.

Harrigan: Our ingoing objective is to build a community that is durable and sustains itself. If investment opportunities become available, fantastic, but that’s not the objective.

VentureBeat: By saying “we want to build this community,” does it mean there’s a lack of one now? If you want to infuse tech more and more into the city, what will it look like?

Bonello: In an era where the cost to participate has never been lower, you still find that there’s an outside-in dynamic. What we realized was, there was never a direct avenue for those on the outside to get involved.

Harrigan: Right now we’re working with eight high schools — four private and four public. We’re trying to blend people of different backgrounds and place them on a level playing field. We’ve already reached out to the department of education (their software and engineering program) to see if we can, over time, dramatically increase the number of schools we’re interacting with so that Grand Central Tech becomes an interstate where everyone knows where the entrances are and everyone knows where the exits are — as opposed to the current landscape of backcountry roads and shortcuts.

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VentureBeat: The tech industry keeps to itself,and sticks to what it knows. Is this the way to open it up?

Bonello: What we found last year when we did this (a separate pilot test) was that the young people who came in working (the interns) were fantastic. The companies went bananas over the interns. These were all graduating seniors going into college.

We want to create a system where everyone that wants to contribute can.

VentureBeat: What’s the sustainability of this program?

Harrigan: At the upfront, the Milsteins are ideal partners for us. They’ve built institutions all over they city. They’re interested in contributing to the growth of tech as an institutional sector of the NYC economy. As we demonstrate demand, they have indicated an interest in providing additional space. From a space perspective, that is one thing Charlie and I have an advantage on.

Bonello: To tie it back to our overarching goal right now, we happen to be very fortunate to have great partners, but our main focus is to get the best companies in here and the absolute best entrepreneurs and resources that they need to grow and thrive. We’re pretty confident that, with this being our goalpost, we’re going to be able to create tremendous value that will allow us to continue to grow.

VentureBeat: When is the deadline for applications?

Harrigan: May 1. And we hope to accept the class within the next week or two from May 1. And then open our doors formally June 15.

VentureBeat: And applications opened last week?

Harrigan: If you’re going to ask us how many there are — it’s more than we can give you an accurate number of. A lot.

VentureBeat: Are you seeing a wide variety of companies already?

Bonello: We’re seeing geographic diversity, team diversity…size, progress, age, background, sector. These are all tech or tech-facilitated companies. They’re all very exciting. This is the fun part of what we’re doing.

Harrigan: We’re seeing people communicate what their dreams are — what their vision is — and we can potentially help them go where they’re trying to go.

If you’re interesting in learning more about the initiative, head here.

More information:

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