The technology of tomorrow is being born in an unlikely place: a group of abandoned West Harlem factories.
Local developers are working to retrofit the old factories, including the former Taystee Bakery, into buildings for high-tech start-ups and non-profits, just blocks from Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus.
The development’s tenants, which will be located in the area around 126th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, include a testing facility for a new generation of rechargeable batteries and a biotech incubator founded by a Columbia professor.
Jerry Salama, co-principal at the Harlem-based developer Janus Property Management, which is responsible for the revitalization effort, said the Factory District would help jump-start the community and create a hub of economic activity in Upper Manhattan.
“We’re very interested in who our tenants are and how they fit into the community,” Salama said. “We’re not interested in maximizing rent as much as hosting innovative nonprofits and job-creating companies.”
One of the site’s tenants is local energy company Urban Electric Power, which has received almost $1.5 million in state grants to build a testing facility for a next-generation rechargeable zinc battery. The new battery was developed at the City University of New York Energy Institute in partnership with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which poured $3 million into research on how to prepare the technology for commercial production.
The main advantage of the new battery is that it is made of zinc and manganese, two ingredients that are more sustainable than the typical battery materials of nickel—cadmium or lead. The batteries could provide a low-cost, high-efficiency way of storing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar. They will go into production next year.
Valerio De Angelis, interim CEO of Urban Electric Power, said the company was drawn to the Harlem site for a variety of reasons, including its proximity to the CUNY Energy Institute as well as Columbia and its Manhattanville expansion.
“The area is important to us because we can pluck a lot of talented people who are early in their career, extremely motivated, extremely smart, and see the need for a change in the industry,” De Angelis said. “And for us, staying in the city and the community is also very important.”
Another new tenant of the development is Harlem Biospace, a biotech business incubator started by Columbia biomedical engineering professor Samuel Sia. After receiving more than $600,000 in funds from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Harlem Biospace plans to host up to 24 nascent biotech start-ups once it opens in November.
The incubator, which will be taking up residence in a former confectionery, is currently reviewing applications, and will provide tenants with a wet lab and advanced research equipment, which Sia said are often prohibitively expensive for young entrepreneurs.
“When you build something this complicated but still want to keep prices low for start-ups, you have to bridge between the two,” Sia said. “I’m not here to try to maximize the profit.”
Sia said he hoped the new location would make it easier to reach out to Columbia students and encourage them to dive into biotech research. In addition, Biospace will host classes for entrepreneurs and local residents.
“One of my missions here is to try to encourage young people to do biotech research, which has traditionally been seen as tougher to do than writing an app,” Sia said. “And I don’t think that’s right, so this is our effort to take one small step in our direction.”
Salama said Janus will begin work on the Taystee Bakery building, which it acquired in June 2012, as soon as the developers receive demolition and construction permits from the city in the next few months.