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How to grow a successful startup

NYU's business incubators are giving forward-thinking entrepreneurs a boost.

When David Mahfouda founded Bandwagon, a ride-sharing company that connects taxi passengers leaving from the same location, he knew his idea was golden. It made sense for New Yorkers — the intuitive app saves riders time and money — and New York City —it shrinks taxi lines and helps support city cabs that have taken a hit since the rise of Uber and Lyft. But a prickly question remained: How to grow his business and introduce it to the masses?

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The answer, for Mahfouda, was the Urban Future Lab at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, a business incubator that focuses on clean tech and city-based startups. As a tenant/member in the two-year program, he’s had the luxury of refining his concept with expert mentors.

"Having mentorship in office is just really helpful,” says Mahfouda. “It’s just really useful to turn to someone else who’s just a little further along than you are, and ask their advice.”

After Bandwagon tested well in places where taxi passengers tend to congregate — airports, conference centers — the company was ready to go to the next level. This summer, Bandwagon synched up with e-hail app Arro. In the fall, the partnership will allow taxi riders to pool rides and split fares in yellow and green cabs.

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Mahfouda credits much of his success to being part of Urban Future Lab.“It’s really gratifying to be able to see how far you’ve come by helping other people in the community.”

The future of business

We’ve all seen the “Shark Tank” success stories that make launching a business look easy. The reality, of course, is far more complex.

That’s where business incubators like NYU’s come in. Think of it as a bike with removable training wheels: They fuse the supportive structure of a business incubator with an accelerator model, where companies have to hustle to hit specific milestones every six months. Currently, NYU’s Tandon incubators house about 50 companies between three spaces (Urban Future Lab, Data Future Lab and Digital Future Lab), each devoted to a different type of innovation.

Interested startups go through a rigorous application process and are reviewed by current companies in the incubator. It’s all part of their goal to have companies come together to help solve one another’s problems, explainsSteven Kuyan, NYU Tandon’s managing director of incubators and entrepreneurship.

“We try to find companies that are solving real fundamental problems with real solutions,” he says.

Making that money

That was the case withFindMine, an e-commerce company that develops software to help retailers better curate their products.

“As a consumer, I was frustrated by that extra layer of work when I’d go to buy something. You have to figure out what shoes go with it, what jacket goes with it, should I belt?” explainsco-founder and CEO Michelle Bacharach of her inspiration behind the company.

The savvy software uses artificial intelligence to show retailers how to use a particular item of clothing, and how to put together an outfit on a mannequin.

“It’s like this army of little helper bots doing a tedious task [but] a retail manager is approving them before they go live,” she says.

That sense of community at the incubator made a huge difference to Bacharach as she refined and tweaked her product.“We can ping the other companies in the program if we have a technical roadblock stopping our progress. We can say, 'Hey, who’s dealt with this before?' There's someone who can help us fix it on the fly.”

All startups face the challenge of raising capital, which is why another perk of the Future Labs is on-site investors who can “pair with companies in our space that fit their portfolio mandate,” explains Kuyan.

“We have access to office hours with investors where they can tell you, ‘Here’s something about your pitch that you can change, here’s something about your pitch I like,’” says Bacharach.

The incubator also helps its members with the critical task of connecting with and applying for capital. Bandwagon, which by its very nature helps reduce congestion, received generous funding from theNew York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which provides grants to companies and institutions working to solve energy usage problems.

The next wave

Last month, NYU’s Tandon school launched theNYU/ffVC AI NexusLab, the first program dedicated to fostering artificial intelligence (AI) startups at a U.S. university (think everything from self-driving cars and robotics to marketing). Interested in this fast-growing field? The AI NexusLab istaking applications.

As for all aspiring entrepreneurs, Kuyan has a few simple words of advice.

“Solve problems instead of finding solutions," he says. "I think a lot of people are so focused around things they like, or they want to build, or they’ve come up with a really cool piece of technology. It becomes really hard to stay motivated if you’re focusing on building a solution instead of solving a problem.”

 
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