NYC BigApps: For Profit or Non Profit?

A strange question started popping up in my classes at SVA PoD, NYU ITP, and in various apps and tech and data competitions:

Is my concept best suited to become a company? Or a non profit?

Strange, because when I graduated in the 90’s – this question might apply to one’s career path, but it was pretty clear that non profits were for those that wanted to do good, and for profits were for those that were ambitious, and wanted to make money.

Now there are multiple, myriad ways to form an entity, and “good” is not the provenance of the mission driven 501 (c) 3.

A better way to answer this question – follow the funding sources that accelerate scale.

I’ll be speaking Saturday, June 21, at the NYC BigApps Big Build

Craving Tactile, Human Connections through Technology

The 4th Annual NYU ITP Pitchfest

For the past four years I’ve had the honor of organizing the NYU ITP Pitchfest, a workshop series and pitch day for entrepreneurial ITP students and their creative technology companies. Student teams iterate on their thesis and course projects to build them into companies, pitching to New York’s most generous VC and Angel investors for feedback and counsel. Joanne Wilson, Gotham Gal and the WE Festival, Andy Weissman of Union Square Ventures, Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises, Frank Rimalovski of NYU Innovation Fund and the Entrepreneurial Institute, and Taylor Davidson of kbs+ Ventures served as our esteemed panel of compassionate critics.

For those that don’t know the school, ITP is a two-year graduate program founded by the late Red Burns, and located in the Tisch School of the Arts. Described as “MIT’s Artier Cousin” the school’s mission is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies — how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives. ITP is a technology school in an art school, and long before the recent rise of wearables, connected devices, and the internet of things, students learned physical computing – how code could power real things in the real world. Stepping into ITP feels like a trip into the future, but the aim of the course is to use the technologies available today to manifest a world we want to live in, best described as the Center for the Recently Possible.

Students graduate with the skills to make, to code, to visualize, and to start companies – from Foursquare which originally began as Dennis Crowley’s thesis project, Dodgeball, to Project Noah, Yasser Ansari’s citizen science app for documenting nature that was enveloped by National Geographic after presenting in the first annual Pitchfest.



Maria Paula Saba, a recent graduate of ITP, and Sara Chipps are the co-founders of Jewliebots, an open source programmable jewelry company. Aiming for the teenage market, and building on the trend of celebrity wearables, Jewliebots plans to sell direct to teens, with an added benefit to parents that their girls will learn to code while customizing their jewelry. Maria showcased the Lillybot, which allows teens to program their jewelry to change colors and react to sensors, and the Daisybot, for teens reveal how they feel through their Twitter or Facebook updates.

Aqua Bridge



Youjin Shin presented Aqua-Bridge, a platform that empowers citizens to solve their own water problems by allowing them to test their water quality easily and share it with the world. Originally deployed in Nigeria, Tanzania and Ghana, Aqua-Bridge has worked with NGO groups to test the water quality of donated water filter technology, and share quality outcomes data transparently. While working on the project at ITP, Youjin responded to requests from local New Yorkers to test their water quality as well, and quickly learned that while NYC’s municipal water supply is one of the most successful in the country, building water towers, old pipes, and defunct water filters contaminate the system. Aqua-Bridge hopes to encourage citizen science on a global scale, selling testing kits in the US to fund testing in the developing world.



Natasha Dzurny, otherwise known as TechnoChic on her successful Etsy shop, described her inspiration for GLANCE in the high design furniture showrooms of SoHo. GLANCE displays real-time personal information as a beautiful abstract wall piece for the home or office. Dzumy uses fitness trackers and other devices to discover and use information, but finds it takes too long to continuously take out her handset, unlock the screen, find the app, and use the app – often with little insight or understanding. GLANCE gives personal data a place to influence its creator and bridges the worlds of kinetic displays, like a clock, with programmable influential information, designed for the home. Individuals choose a single goal, like steps walked or miles run, and GLANCE shows you your progress for the period of time you’re tracking.


NutureMe Minigame

NutureMe Minigame

Ilwon Yoon and Woonyung Choi are inspired to build a mobile game that offers a fun way to interact with fitness data to stay fit. Influenced by Pokemon tamagotchi toys they played with as kids back in South Korea, and mobile avatar games, NutureMe is an iteration of Yoon’s thesis project, Walk to the Moon, and addresses a core problem with activity trackers: motivation. Wearables and trackers deliver insights in the form of a single number or progress towards an arbitrary goal, but Yoon and Choi wanted an emotional, fun connection. NutureMe works off of the Moves app API, and connects the user to a mobile game about a pet dog. The more steps you take, the healthier your puppy grows and thrives.


Diana Freed addresses a key unmet need in health: the ability for patients to comprehend their diagnosis and care. Freed’s credentials are astounding – a Clinical Psychologist, Pediatric Neurosurgery researcher, Technologist in Residence at Cornell Tech, former EVP of Communications at Rosetta, Freed is now at ITP to develop technologies that improve patients’ lives. In all of her previous efforts to connect with patients, Freed noticed a common problem that human-centered technology could solve – the ability for patients to follow up and understand their care using questions and quick surveys written in patient language. Healthiecare has already been tested at Cornell Weill Hospital, and is in consideration for a pilot with Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Neurosurgery to study patient and caregiver comprehension of breakthrough seizures.




Su Hyun Kim created Tiya –a mobile app paired with robotic ears that are programmed to deliver physical interaction when somebody sends you a message. The robotic ears are designed to encase an iPhone, enabling users to squeeze, tap, or scratch the case and ears for immediate emotional reaction. Frustrated with the coldness of constant screen swiping as a primary form of human communication, Kim is seeking a more intimate connection through the use of tactile physical computing. Tiya is building on the huge global growth of messaging apps like WhatsApp, and more visually-driven apps like Line, but delivering a tactile connection.




ITP Adjunct Professor and Scientist in Residence, former VP R&D of Disney Imagineering Eric Rosenthal teamed up with ITP Grad, Design Engineer, and Interpreter for the Hard of Hearing Michelle Temple to create Wear, a wearable assisted living device. Wear is a directional microphone with no latency or delay that sells for under $200. Aimed at portion of all of us with mild or moderate hearing loss, Wear aims to be as prevalent and socially acceptable as eyeglasses – available to the people who are just starting to lose their hearing from too many concerts and earbud wearing, and the people that want to engage in conversations with their loved ones. Wear completed a successful Kickstarter project, and aims to build the company to accelerate market adoption and launch new form factors, features, and products.


ITP grad Alexandra Diracles and Melissa Halfon are co-founders of VidCode, an educational software company igniting girls interest in programming through video art, to get more girls to love to code. From personal experience and through direct observation of middle school and high school computer sciences classes, Diracles and Halfon noticed not just the small percentage of teen girls but the social isolation that they face when learning these core skills. Girls told VidCode that they wanted programming to be built into an existing hobby, more fun, and more community. VidCode is built on the fact that over 60% of teengirls are using video app creation and sharing platforms as a primary communications medium, and they enable girls to edit and augment their created videos through dragging and dropping filters and interacting with the code to create the look they want. With interest from a number of schools, parents, and a the 4.0 Schools Incubator in New Orleans, VidCode will test their product and validate their business model this summer, sharing their own passion for code, and to bring girls the tools to discover the role technology can play in their lives.

To present in the Pitchfest, student teams were selected for variety and preparedness to start a business, and then facilitated through a number of workshops to clarify their company vision, their business model hypothesis, and their company story. This year’s Pitchfest was augmented by the efforts of the NYU ITP Lean LaunchPad mentors: Tom Igoe of ITP and Arduino, Nancy Hechinger of ITP and the WE Festival, Julie Berkun Fajgenbaum of Yolko, John Bachir of, Michael Levitz of R/GA, Josh Knowles of Frescher Southern, Ajay Revels of Polite Machines, and our newest mentor: Ambika Nigam of IDEO. We all wish the students and recent grads success, and want to see all of these companies succeed for our own health, relationships, creativity, and happiness.

Every year a member of the audience shares the same feeling I had when I first learn about ITP – “why did I not know about ITP before I went to grad school?” So we invite you learn by proxy, becoming a mentors and advisors to future Pitchfests.

Lean Customer Discovery Needs Design Research

When you are in a startup, under the gun, trying to execute – how do you find time for empathy?

Lean launchpad simulates entrepreneurship by requiring founders to get out of the building…and into their customer’s world.

Teams succeed when they start talking to people, and find the magic in actually validating their hypotheses with customers, potential partners, and even fellow founders who may have tried to pursue the same dream. But it’s hard to get underneath.

What we heard:

“I think I only scratched the surface, and never really got to the core problems.”

“I don’t know if my customers really understand what they need enough to articulate it to me.”

“Customers said they would pay, but then they didn’t when it came time to pay.”

The truth is that when you are just TALKING – you fail to yield anything but the obvious facts, the surface level insights. For greater learning, Ajay Revels and I reviewed all of the design research literature. Not all of ethnography or design research is relevant for a startup founder – but there are critical skills and techniques that will radically accelerate your ability to understand the pain for which you are trying to solve.

In this slideshare, we highlight the core techniques we’ve curated from D-School, Steve Portigal’s great source, Interviewing Users, Universal Methods of Design, and Ajay herself from Polite Machines.

Have you used design research techniques have you used to get to the underlying needs of your customers?

The NYC Ecosystem is Real, Growing Fast, but Different

What happens when you ask your network for help?

Here’s the first thing I learned when teaching Lean LaunchPad at NYU ITP. The structure and blueprint as taught at Stanford was essential to strengthening the ecosystem: a large group of Advisors as lecturers and helpful participants, and individual Mentors assigned to each team. The Mentor ask was big in a town filled with busy people – come each week for the full 3 hour class, and then host additional time with the teams to keep them progressing through the Business Model Canvas, and the course.
There was skepticism that NYC, and NYU, and ITP was ready for this level of commitment, on a volunteer basis. Would we really get people to show up every week? I was skeptical of my own network – I had spent my career based in NY, but often tethered to the Bay Area. Did I have in my own network the former founders, investors, and experts we’d need to structure the course? Could I compel these people to give so much time?

Learn more on our class blog – and a big thank you to all of the mentors and advisors who joined us!