I have to admit that, at first, I was feeling pretty uninspired at the New York’s Next Top Makers popup in Downtown Brooklyn yesterday, an event organized by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Something about the overabundance of 3D-printed trinkets and other items of questionable application made me question the visionary declarations of the project which claims to spotlight some of the most promising “big thinkers” in tech and manufacturing in the city. Many of the developers present were certainly more worthy of the indeterminate label “maker,” than inventor or entrepreneur, anyway.
Light-up plastic cubes? Give me one reason I would buy these; I can only imagine them either ending up as a chew toy for pets or as forgotten garbage in a dump. And combs (yes, hair combs) that fit neatly inside a wallet? Not exactly revolutionary, is it? And, sure, I chuckled at a 3D-printed smiling poop emoji–courtesy of 3D NYC Lab, a fellow at the brand new Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator–but after trying and failing to explain the significance of a pile of poo in Japanese culture to the start-up’s representative, I realized that however reluctant I was to admit it, this poo pile was also somewhat useless. If we’re talking about “exciting new products and solutions” made right here in Brooklyn, then we’re certainly not talking about most of the stuff at this event. But I pressed on anyway, and was surprised and pleased to find a few genuinely exciting, flashy products as well as some initiatives that were perhaps not super sexy, but were altogether exciting once I started asking questions.
First, I found a sleek stainless steel contraption with several cups lined up beneath it: An automated pour over machine. Now, I know this is something so Brooklyn it hurts, but the Poursteady actually has the potential to relieve baristas of a task which can either be an artful pleasure or tedious nightmare, depending on the number of customers impatiently awaiting their fix. If pouring hot water over coffee grounds sounds simple, you’ve either never seen it done well or are like me and prefer your coffee bodega-style. The Poursteady takes into account all the tricks of the trade, and through an app baristas can control temperature, rinse, bloom pour, and a bunch of other variables that really mean nothing to anyone but coffee geeks, but that apparently make a huge difference in making the ultimate cup of joe.
I spoke with Stuart Heys, a mechanical engineer/machinist/roboticist and one of four guys at the helm of this company. He admitted he doesn’t come from a coffee background, but that his partner, Mark Sibenac, “has been a coffee snob for a while.” Heys helped design the Poursteady, which can make five pour overs at the same time and isn’t limited to coffee drinks; Heys and an assistant were busy making hot toddies when I approached them.
The machine is still very much in prototype phase, but Heys said the company is seeking out beta testers. He was careful to clear up any notion that the Poursteady was meant to replace baristas, which I sincerely believe because after looking at the control app, I would have no clue how to make a good cup of coffee utilizing this machine. This is one robot that isn’t designed to replace humans, but to help them.
One of the more surprising start-ups, Radiator Labs, was also one of the less glamorous tables, and the founder and CEO Marshall Cox kept apologizing for the state of their display. But after listening to his run-down of what looked like an ugly bag thrown over a radiator, I was reminded that nerds are not always the best at making something look amazing but boy can they come up with some awesomely simple solutions to problems the rest of society has simply sat back and dealt with.
Cox has developed an app and radiator cover (loaded with infrared sensors and a fan) that help control the temperature in steam-heated apartments. The product won the MIT Clean Energy Prize back in 2012, and for good reason. Cox explained that each year New Yorkers waste billions of dollars on unnecessary heating costs, but that his product has demonstrated the ability to save people 30-40 percent on their overall heating bill.Better yet, if an entire building makes use of the radiator covers, heat can be redistributed from hot rooms to cold ones. So no more fighting with your roommates about temperature settings! Glory be!
But one of the best finds of the night came from a group of strikingly young lads (Botfactory) who have developed something that isn’t for everyone, and certainly isn’t for “coffee snobs,” but is nevertheless pretty damn revolutionary. Meet Squink: the world’s first compact “circuit factory.” The contraption actually prints tiny circuit boards, something that up until now has been reserved for large-scale manufacturers. Carlos Ospina explained the logic behind Squink. “It builds electronic circuits from beginning to end with a simple process,” he said. “We wanted to do something that’s fast, cheap, and that your grandmother can do.”
Whereas having tiny, made-just-for-you circuit boards usually takes days if not weeks, and, according to Ospina, costs a minimum of $120 for a set of four, Squink prints circuits that cost from $2-$4 a pop. “What they say about hardware is true–hardware is hard, it takes too long,” he said. “But we are confident we’ll replace the current methods.” The implications for tech industries and research labs are encouraging.
And the machine is so compact it can fit on top of a desk. “We used it in a taxi today,” another founder of the company Andrew Ippoliti explained. Ospina said a model like the prototype would cost around $3500. The accessibility of a machine like this breaks down barriers for tech and hardware companies that are just starting out.
A writer from Technically Brooklyn advised me to pay close attention to the Squink dudes. “These guys are going to be billionaires,” he said.