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NYC’s VR Brain Drain & What To Do About It

NYC’s VR brain drain & What to do about it

NYC’s VR Brain Drain & What To Do About It

Published March 27, 2017

As a VR/AR/MR creator who lives in New York City, working in this industry currently requires me to exist somewhere in my own personal Bermuda (VRmuda?) Triangle — on constant plane rides and phone calls between New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. My day frequently doesn’t end until midnight, when it’s only 9pm on the West Coast. Why? Well, I’d like to think it’s because when you’re working on what you love, you never stop creating, dreaming, and developing. But the reality is that New York doesn’t currently have what it takes to be a leader in the rising “Realities” technologies of VR/AR/MR. If I want to work with the best, that usually means I’m working with the West. There, I said it, New York — and yes, you need to hear it. (If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from living in all three of the cities in the Triangle at different points in my life, it’s that New York can handle the truth better than any of them.)

It’s not just that the work is on the West Coast  — it’s that people are leaving New York to go there. I’ve met many of our best and brightest who left the punishing winters to head to the sunny side where the Realities revolution is flourishing. People who help start New York VR meet-ups or developers who founded innovative companies that couldn’t take root. They left. Engineers, Designers, Content Creators, and Educators awed by the Realities, owing New York nothing, are leaving to go where they are more likely to succeed. And, as far as I know, not a single one of them has regretted moving away. But maybe it’s just me and the circle I’m in. So let’s see what the data says…

A strong indication of the health of an emerging industry relies on the vitality of its entrepreneurs: the people bold and brave enough to create what has never existed before, who see the future and then build it, who risk not having healthcare to pursue their dreams. So I ran through the top of the VR startups with the strongest “signal” (supposedly an indication of strength of momentum) on AngelList.

Here’s where the top 100 startups in the VRmuda Triangle are based:
Bay Area: 61
Los Angeles / San Diego: 22
New York: 14

AngelList only states where the company is headquartered. If we were going by actual presence, the Los Angeles number is actually inaccurate. It should be much higher. Many of the larger VR companies based in the Bay Area (Jaunt, Upload, River Studios to name a few) also have offices into Los Angeles. They do not have offices in New York.

So, here we are in the self-proclaimed “greatest city in the world” that is missing out on one of the greatest technological disruptors happening today… a technology that has been written about ad nauseam with proclamations of revolutionizing entertainment, education, medical fields, retail, the list goes on and on.

To his credit, New York’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, recognized this and announced an AR/VR Lab initiative at the end of December 2016. What exactly the Lab is and what it will do is still unclear — you can check it out (and apply for, until April 7th) the currently open RFP.

The presentation for the RFP states four main goals:

  1. “Support” early growth-stage VR/AR companies with space and resources
  2. Access to equipment to foster collaboration
  3. Convene academic, start-up and business communities
  4. Training opportunities to increase talent pipeline

The only one of those goals that it goes into in any detail is the space: 11 of the 23 pages of the presentation are on real estate options for the Lab. Just to be clear: New York has places we can pay to go work. There are dozens of collaborative work spaces from WeWork to the media-specific Made In NY Media Lab where VR creators are already working, In fact, creating another “space” that is focused on sustaining itself (as per the RFP guidelines) rather than building an infrastructure that supports an industry is the last thing that we need.

Here’s what New York actually needs:

  1. Talent. While the idea of training a new sub-set of talent is admirable, it takes time to ramp up skills need to create that killer content at a high level. Not to mention making the cognitive shift from traditional mediums into immersive mediums that most career-changers to VR/AR haven’t even made yet. We need to attract and retain skilled engineers, entrepreneurs, and designers. Whether they are coming from other industries with those skills or from years of studying at excellent local universities (Columbia, NYU) — it’s the talent that has the ideas that people want to invest in. Find them. Keep them. Bring them here if you have to. Incentivize the companies who have invested in SF/LA offices to have NY offices.
  2. Investment. The RFP creates a Lab that will charge start-ups to have access to and in their space. How are they going to pay for that space? They need investors. Digi-Capital estimated that AR/VR will be a $150 billion industry by 2022. We’re New York… The finance capital of the world! And yet, attracting investors, investment opportunities and tapping into investment networks is not mentioned anywhere in the city’s RFP.
  3. Access. The RFP got this right. Kind of. The hardware and devices can be hard to come by, so having a space where the HMDs and trackers are accessible to entrepreneurs is necessary. But developers and creatives really need to get their hands on the latest and greatest earlier — while it’s still in development. And again, this goes back to talent. If the companies with technology in development know that your talent can beta their hardware with insightful feedback, you’ll get it before anyone else and be ahead of anyone else.
  4. Networks of Influencers. Meet-ups do a great job of bringing people together. DJ Smith at NYVR, Debra Anderson at NYWomen in VR, and Paul Blair at NY Hololens Developers are leading the charge in community building and access to new technologies. However, interest in a field is not the same thing as being able to run an investable company. For that you need an eco-system of well-connected, highly influential people dedicated to New York’s success in the Realities. Not just a Lab Operator.

So, a powerful network of developers that attracts and retains talent with access to technology supported by investments… Sounds kind of like an Incubator. BoostVC , Super Ventures, UploadVR, Virtual Reality Fund are all VR-specific platform-independent incubators. One guess where they are all based. Yep. The San Francisco Bay Area.

I’d be willing to bet that New York would get incredible results with a few motivated, ambitious, well-connected Incubators. If the City really wants to create a successful Lab, they should entice Incubators to be part of it. And some of the space that they are committed to providing should be allocated to companies on the West Coast for expansion into New York that will attract and retain talent.

A little good news to wrap this up… First Round Ventures did a recent study of nearly 600 founders from 300 start-ups to determine the characteristics of what makes a successful start-up. (I bet that the #1 characteristic is not what you think it is — make sure to check it out). What they found was that location doesn’t matter.

So, we should presumably be able to build an empire of flourishing, innovative Realities in New York City.

In the meantime, I’ll be back on a plane to Los Angeles in two days.

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