(Re)experiencing The NY Tech Scene

Posted by Liyan on April 02, 2013
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Hello world! Your NY Startup Scout is back — with more story ideas and reporting experience!

This past weekend, I went to the Open Tech NYC  2013, a conference on how open source is driving the NY tech scene. It was my first tech conference in New York City and I got to feel the vibe of the Big Apple tech scene beyond the NYU start-up community. The conference featured seven presentations by entrepreneurs, data scientists, and developers from great New York start-ups such as Shapeaways and Foursquare (You can check out the complete agenda here.)

As an aspiring data geek, I loved the presentation by Joel Natividad of Ontodia, who talked about the Open Data Initiative of New York City. Nothing excites journalists more than the access to public information — especially in the digital form. New York City is setting up a great example by pushing government agencies to make data available, which is an important step for open-government. Another great presentation is the history of the hackathon by Jon Gottfried of Twilio. Gottfried, who has been actively involved in the hackathon world, talked about how “hackathon” evolved from an ideal to a buzzword. It all started as the SuperHappyDevHouse, a model for programmers to create a community of building things for fun. But as this model evolved and became commoditized, many “hackathons” these days lost the original spirit of community.

It was fantastic to learn more about cool New York start-ups at a conference setting. Listening to the developers really helped me understand the technology — not just PR fluff — behind theses businesses. As an intern at Inc. Magazine this semester, I have been covering the big picture of the start-up and small business world (everything from the prospect of a start-up visa to the myth of a Series A crunch). I have increasingly realized that being a no-nonsense tech reporter requires in-depth understanding of technology and its history.

Relaunching My Personal Website

Posted by Liyan on December 11, 2012
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After two months of exploring the world of HTML/CSS, I have finally relaunched my personal website: liyanchen.com.

To be fair, I did NOT code the site and used a template that I purchased at Mojo Themes. But I did a lot of customization to make it look like what it is now, through applying my HTML/CSS skills. From adding Twitter widget to changing font size, I had a fun time exploring the world of code.

The idea of having a portfolio website traced back to this summer, when I was contemplating what the domain name should be for my BER reporting class (yes, I was THAT excited over the summer). Then I surprisingly found that liyanchen.com was still available. With some tips from a friend, I bought the domain name, purchased the hosting service, and configured the WordPress Platform. Bingo! Liyanchen.com is mine.

In the beginning of the semester, I decided to get another home for The NY Startup Scout, since it makes more sense to save liyanchen.com for my portfolio. Due to the heavy course-load, I have never gotten the chance to reconstruct my personal website until now.

From now on, Liyanchen.com will include my portfolio in various publications. I will continue to improve it, so please let me know what you think!

From $75K To $500K: How NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge Kickstarted CourseHorse

Posted by Liyan on December 10, 2012
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CourseHorse, winner of the 2011 New Venture Competition, recently raised $500,000 in a seed funding round and launched a co-branded site with Time Out New York.

One and a half year after winning the New Venture Competition in 2011, Katie Kapler and Nihal Parthasarathi have turned CourseHorse into one of the leaders in the $17.5 billion personal interest educational market. In October, the startup raised $500,000 in a seed funding round led by a group of investors including New York Angels, NYC Seed, and Pinterest’s first investor Brian Cohen.

Nihal Parthasarathi (left) and Katie Kapler (right) founded CourseHorse in 2011 and won the NYU New Venture Competition.  PHOTO: LIYAN CHEN

CourseHorse, a startup that connects users to local classes through a platform of more than 20,000 classes from 500 class providers, is one of many successful startups that have thrived from the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge. From improving communication skills to building strong relationships, Kapler and Parthasarathi, both NYU alumni, earned the $75,000 cash prize step by step through hard work, persistence, and strong passion for education.

“There are lots of sexy startups out there trying to build really cool products that go viral, or insert another buzz word. But it’s always been our passion to tackle a real problem and make a real impact,” Kapler said in an interview in September.

Read more on Forbes’ blog on NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge.

Note: To learn more about the story of CourseHorse, click here for my previous interview with Katie Kapler.

Intersection Of Entrepreneurship And Journalism

Posted by Liyan on December 06, 2012
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Startup principles work for not only entrepreneurs, but also journalists.

Having covered startups in New York for some time, I have learned many lessons from entrepreneurs that can be applied in my journalism practice. I have increasingly realized that in many ways, I am an entrepreneur who committed herself to the business of producing high-quality news stories that matter to readers.

But what does that mean? Let me take Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Method as an example.

To write interesting stories, I first need to identify under-reported topics, such as the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge, in the entrepreneurial world. Ideally, journalists want to write about something that no one else has written before. Even for a topic that everyone else is covering, good reporters can still find unique angles that few have looked at. The Lean Startup Method said so, too – the first step for startups is to identify an existing problem that they wish to solve. If it is a problem that many people already know, startup founders need to come up with a solution that no one has thought of before.

Once I identify a good topic, I need to tell the story in a way that readers find interesting. Once I finish writing a story, I gain feedback from readers through different channels (yes, readers are my customers). Doesn’t this sound like the Minimal Viable Product development and customer validation in Lean Startup? According to the Lean Startup Method, startup founders need to build a MVP that will allow feedback from their customers. Such feedback can help founders to better improve the existing product and avoid wasting time on developing less important features.

Based on the feedback from readers, I sometimes need to adjust the topic or my writing style in my next story– in other words, I “pivot” in my writing, as many entrepreneurs will call it. Of course, I run into the problem that many startup owners face: what is the right time to “pivot”? As a journalist, I do not write stories to simply please the readers. A story with many page views does not guaranteed its quality. But at the same time, if only six people in the world read what I write, that says something about how interesting my story is. To “pivot” or not requires sound judgment from a good journalist and a good entrepreneur.

Each story for journalists is like each round of iteration for entrepreneurs: you write a story; you validate the interests from readers; you “pivot” accordingly. But at the end of the day, like entrepreneurs, journalists need to repeat the process and keep trying, until they find their best writing styles.

See the similarities between the Lean Startup Method and the thought process of a journalist?

The Lean Startup Method is one of many lessons that I learned from the entrepreneurial world. The more I cover the startup world, the more I realize that start-up entrepreneurs and journalists have similar characters to succeed.

The most important thing we share is passion. You can’t build a startup without deep passion, just as you can’t be a good reporter without love for reporting and writing. Startup founders work 24/7 at home, at their friend’s garage, or at a public library, often without getting paid a penny. As Bob Dorf said to the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge constants in his Boot Camp, building a startup is “brutally hard.” Similarly, in an increasingly competitive media world, only those with deep passion for news are willing to stay in the news industry. Needless to say, passion is what drives entrepreneurs and journalists to succeed.

In addition to passion, both entrepreneurs and journalists need persistence. Journalists make tens of cold phone calls before they contact the right source. The best reporters never give up even the smallest clue for a story. Same with entrepreneurs. Almost every entrepreneur has to cope with failure. The secret to building a successful startup is to keep trying until you get to the right product and business model.

Don’t get me wrong – I do my best to be objective and I often ask entrepreneurs tough questions. But I love reporting technology, startups, and entrepreneurship, because I learn so much from the exciting process of building a company.

The Global Entrepreneurs Challenge

Posted by Liyan on December 01, 2012
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More than half of the Fortune 500 companies – including big names like General Motors, Disney, and AT&T – were founded during recession. Economic slowdown often brings the best times to start a business. High unemployment rates and bear markets turn many individuals into ambitious entrepreneurs. The impacts are far-reaching: entrepreneurs not only create jobs and boost economic growth, but also bring innovation to the world’s economy. But in spite of the strong demand for entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs in the United States and France still find themselves struggling against different unsupportive entrepreneurship-related policies.

For instance, in France, the country where the word “entrepreneur” was invented, startup founders started “Les Pigeons,” an online campaign in July to protest against the government’s plan to increase capital gains taxes. Under the new 2013 budget of François Hollande’s Socialist government, effective marginal tax rate will jump to as high as 60 percent from 32 percent in some cases for investors and entrepreneurs selling their businesses. The campaign soon attracted more than 50,000 followers on Facebook. “It is time to reinforce our actions in favor of enterprises, jobs, and growth in France,” the group claimed on its website.

While high tax rates discouraged French entrepreneurs, the immigration system has become the biggest challenge for American startups. Many foreign entrepreneurs and engineers cannot obtain proper visas to build their companies in the United States, despite that immigrant-founded startups employed about 560,000 workers and generated an estimated $63 billion in sales from 2006 to 2012, according to a study by the Kaufmann Foundation. As a result, in the much venerated Silicon Valley, the percentage of immigrant-founded startups declined from 52.4 percent to 43.9 percent between 2006 and 2012.

As the homes of free enterprise like the United States and France fail to support entrepreneurs, fast-growing economies like Chile set out to attract these talents. Since 2010, Chile has launched “Startup Chile” to establish its fame as the entrepreneurial hub in Latin America. The program gives the founders of selected startups the equivalent of $40,000 and a one-year visa to work in Chile. The outcome is rewarding: some 500 companies and almost 900 entrepreneurs from a total of 37 countries have arrived at the “Chilecan Valley.” Moreover, the program has brought positive impacts on Chile’s entrepreneurial system by inspiring Chileans to start their own businesses. Almost 40% of the most recent round of applications came from Chilean firms, as The Economist reported.

Chile’s success was only an example of the bubbling global tech scene. Despite the fiscal cliff and the Euro-zone recession, entrepreneurs around the world are in full swing. Startups provide an important driving force of the economy, and American and European policy makers need to learn from countries like Chile to configure the right set of policies to support entrepreneurs. Only in this way will the world meet the global entrepreneurship challenge in times of economic slowdown.

After Sandy, Gift Registry Startup Pivoted To Relief Donation Platform

Posted by Liyan on November 24, 2012
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Donors can make general donations as well as contribute to specific items on The New York Foundling Hurricane Relief page.

Deposit a Gift, a New York-based startup, is a cash gift registry service for events like weddings and birthdays. But it has pivoted to a new role after Sandy: gathering cash donations for individuals and organizations that were affected by the hurricane.

A start-up company pivoted its business model to provide donations to those affected by Hurricane Sandy after the superstorm hit New York.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, victims need cash.

It all started when Dana Ostomel, the startup’s founder, posted on Deposit a Gift’s Facebook page, looking for a way to help with post-Sandy relief. She received a response from The New York Foundling, one of the city’s oldest and largest children and family service agencies, which assists more than 11,000 people across five boroughs. During the hurricane, the nonprofit organization lost power due to failed backup generators, and quickly needed donations to buy new generators in its Manhattan and Staten Island offices.

“It was great,” Ostomel said. “We were able to find out what their needs were and set up a fundraising campaign.”

The “Foundling Hurricane Sandy Relief” page was then set up on Nov. 2. On the page, donors can choose to contribute to different items, such as generator replacement or support for children. There is also a “Be a Super Hero” category, where donors can donate to unforeseen needs.

“The platform empowers users with the ability to choose what they want to contribute to,” Ostomel said.

To date, the 100 requests under the clothes and shelter categories have been fulfilled, and the page has raised about $20,000 total. Deposit a Gift has also committed to match every donation with an additional 4 percent donation.

The partnership with The New York Foundling is only one of many campaigns Deposit a Gift has created to help those in need after the hurricane. Individual victims have also created fundraising pages for relatives and friends.

During Hurricane Sandy, the Simon family had to evacuate their home in Oceanwide, New York. After the storm, they returned to Long Island only to find that the house was completely flooded. To help his uncle’s family, Rich Simon and his wife set up a “Help the Simons” page on Deposit a Gift.

These small efforts add up to a great amount of donation. Deposit a Gift has raised about $40,000 for Sandy victims: about half of which has gone to individual campaigns, with the rest going to the Foundling Relief Fund.

And Deposit a Gift is not alone in its efforts. Indiegogo, another crowd-funding platform, had a total number of 148 campaigns and gathered more than $577,000 for Sandy recovery.

Although her startup was initially launched to cater to the registry market, Ostomel said that more people use it now for fundraising and crowdfunding purposes. She hopes that Deposit a Gift will continue to help Sandy victims as well as those in need after future crises.

“The challenge in the past was that your resources were scattered, but you didn’t have a way to rally your supporters,” Ostomel said. “Now with the Internet, you have the ability to get donations in a way that you didn’t before.”

This post is originally posted in BER’s Sandy Recovery Blog.

Correction: November 26, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Rich Simon as Joseph Simon. 

Dream Big, Start Small: NYU Startups Disrupt Big Industries

Posted by Liyan on November 19, 2012
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Contestants at the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge set out to challenge the status quo in major industries through their innovative approaches.

Back in Hawaii, Christopher Bradley got to observe the health industry on a daily basis. He found that his father, a family physician in Honolulu, wasted a lot of time on medical records instead of focusing all his energy on helping patients, because there was no technology in place to solve the data problem.

For Bradley, that observation nurtured an idea of changing the health industry through technology. A computer science graduate student at NYU Poly, Bradley took his “Roadmap for Medical Care” to Poly’s Inno/Vention Competition last year. He won the first prize in April.

Since then, Bradley and his team have gone full speed with one ambitious goal in mind: disrupt the health industry from its source.

Bradley is one of many contestants that seek to upend giant industries through their innovation in this year’s NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge. There is an increase in healthcare services, fashion, media and entertainment, education, and life style businesses, according to Loretta Poole, associate director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.


Mana Health, Bradley’s startup, builds products that will allow doctors to extract insights from patients’ electronic health records. In native Hawaiian, the word “mana” means healing energy. The goal is clear: to complement and enhance doctors’ ability to diagnose and manage their patients’ data.

“We want to make the job as easy as possible for doctors,” Bradley said.

Read more on Forbes’ blog on NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge.

Just Another Day for Startups, but Long-Term Impact Will Follow

Posted by Liyan on November 14, 2012
J-Lab, NY Tech Scene 101 / No Comments

It’s business-as-usual on Election Day at the New York University Incubator on Varick Street. For startups, time is too precious to get caught up in the election, which is of little impact to them in the short term.

“Nothing is going to be different for startups immediately tomorrow regardless of who wins,” said Frank Rimalovski, managing director of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund.

Despite this apathy, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have campaigned heavily to gain support from the technology industry.

In response to a letter from the NY Tech Meetup last month, both campaigns released long statements to emphasize their support for tech startups in New York. Obama wrote a long letter highlighting what he has done during his term, such as the law to “harness crowd-funding to raise capital” and the creation of “Presidential Innovation Fellows.” Romney, on the other hand, listed his policies in bullet points, including a reduction in regulation and lowered taxes.

Although candidates’ positions on startups do not have major differences, their stance on immigration, education, and investment in research will impact startups in a long run, according to Rimalovski.

“Budget cuts in research and development, particularly those related to university research, have long-term impacts, because the majority of the university research funding comes from federal funds,” Rimalovski said.

In his statement, Obama set goals to recruit 100,000 math and science teachers over the next 10 years and train 2 million workers at community colleges for jobs. Romney, in opposition, criticized “Obama’s misguided attempts to play the role of venture capitalist, pick winners and losers, and spend tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments.”

Romney’s response to research investment was his signature tax cut. In his statement, Romney stated that he would lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, as well as strengthen and make permanent the R&D tax credit.

But this generated little interest in the tech-startup world.

“What matters is having regulations that incentivize startups in the initial stage, such as healthcare,” said Steven Kuyan, assistant director of Incubator Initiatives at NYU Poly. Kuyan said that Obama’s healthcare reform has encouraged startups to hire employees.

“There is zero correlation between tax rate and startup activities,” Rimalovski said. “I work with entrepreneurs every day, but I have never heard them mention taxes.”

Note: This story is originally posted in Election Day 2012, a blog by students at NYU’s  Business and Economic Reporting.

Auto Bailout, China, and Romney’s Signature Inaccuracy

Posted by Liyan on November 06, 2012
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Romney’s most recent gaffe was a false claim about the auto industry. Oh, and it happened in the state he’s trying hardest to win—Ohio. 

With the election days away, Mitt Romney has one more thing to learn: how to cite news articles accurately.

Romney recently raised a controversy in Ohio—a key battleground state—when he falsely claimed that a major American auto manufacturer plans to send local factory jobs overseas.

At a rally in Defiance, Ohio, on Oct. 25, Romney told a crowd of 12,000 people that “Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”

The story that Romney cited was a Bloomberg News article that ran Oct. 22. The original story accurately stated that Fiat, majority owner of the Chrysler Group LLC, plans to “return Jeep output to China and may eventually make all of its models in that country.”

Shortly after Romney’s comments, Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne wrote an email to employees, ensuring that Jeep production will not leave Ohio for China. “It is inaccurate to suggest anything different,” Marchionne wrote in the email.

“Romney wanted to puncture Obama’s record on the auto bailout,” said Tom Troy, political writer at The Blade, who has been covering the election in Toledo, Ohio. “But he mischaracterized what he read.”

Romney’s incorrect statement intensified the dispute on the auto industry bailout in the Midwest between two campaigns. In response to Romney’s statement, the Obama campaign launched a new TV commercial in Ohio last week, attacking Romney’s false claim.

“When the auto industry faced collapse, Mitt Romney turned his back. …Mitt Romney on Ohio’s jobs, wrong then, dishonest now,” said the narrator in Obama’s commercial. The commercial cited Detroit News’ criticism on Romney’s “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” statement and Chrysler’s refute of Romney’s Jeep claims.

The auto industry bailout has been a core theme for Obama’s campaign in Ohio, because of its popularity among voters in that state. While Obama’s other policies like healthcare reform are less popular and more controversial among Ohio voters, his support for the auto bailout is a “signature achievement in Ohio,” according to Troy.

Troy suggested that Romney was trying to distract the Ohio voters from the auto bailout and draw their attention to the national economy. But there has been “no push-back” on the bailout.

“But what can you say? [The auto bailout] is unquestionable success,” Troy said.

Ohio’s economy has performed better than the national average since the Obama administration issued the bailout. Unemployment in the state has dropped to 7 percent in September, which remains below the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.

“Ohio is a swing state with strong industrial base. [The auto bailout] touched the nerve of voters,” said Philip Xie, a professor at Bowling Green State University.

Xie said that Romney and Obama present very different perspectives on the auto industry and jobs creation in Ohio. While Obama tries to highlight the success of the auto bailout, Romney is trying to suggest that manufacturing jobs will never return to Ohio.

A native of China and a resident of northwest Ohio, Xie said that Chinese Americans in the region “are living conflicted life,” as the debate on outsourcing jobs to China intensified. Romney’s auto bailout comment was one of the many examples.

“China is a scapegoat during the whole election,” he said. “Every time something happens, it’s China’s fault. Every politician is trying to use China for their purpose.”

But it remains unclear whether the dispute on the auto industry bailout will have real impact on the election.

“Of course you won’t know until Nov 6. But Romney and Obama mentioned [the auto bailout] in every possible way. People got the message,” Troy said.

High Turnout Among Chinese-American Voters

Posted by Liyan on November 06, 2012
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Voting in Chinatown was lively, as Governor Cuomo’s executive order encouraged voters to turn out and interpreters stood by to help translate ballots.

Ngansin Chin, an 82-year-old Chinese immigrant, walked out of the polling station in the Confucius Plaza with a relaxing smile. She has never missed a vote in the presidential elections since she got American citizenship 16 years ago.

Chin said in Cantonese that she voted for President Obama, because she likes him and his policies are “good for the seniors.”

Many Chinese Americans, especially seniors like Chin, arrived slowly at Confucius Plaza the morning of Nov. 6. The turnout of Chinese-American voters in Chinatown has been “quite good,” according to Lester Chang, coordinator of the polling station in the Confucius Plaza. Chang said that he hoped to get a turnout of 25 percent, because normally the turnout is in the low 20 percent.

“Twenty years ago, it was different. Now there’s no challenge anymore,” Chang said, emphasizing the importance of interpretation service provided at the polling station.

Many Chinese Americans, especially seniors, have limited knowledge of English, a major barrier for them to vote in the past. But now Chinese translations are printed on the ballots, and seven interpreters stationed at the Confucius Plaza help voters with language difficulty.

Like Chin, many Chinese-American voters voted for President Obama. In 2008, President Obama won 62 percent of Asian-American votes to John McCain’s 35 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

Shirley Lui, who has been an interpreter for the elections for many years, said that President Obama’s policies appeal more to the economic interests of Chinese-American voters.

“Obama’s policies are for the lower and middle class,” Lui said. “Romney’s policies are for the rich. Most Chinese Americans are new immigrants and relatively poor, so they support Obama.”

Very few people came out to vote in the past, according to Lui. But in recent years, campaigns pay more attention to Chinese-American voters and spend a lot of money to get their votes, such as giving out gifts to Chinese-American seniors at the senior activity center.

While the turnout increases compared to the past, Hurricane Sandy affects the turnout rate of voters in other boroughs, according to Chang. Some voters said the Governor Cuomo’s executive order helped them to vote.

To monitor the voting rights for Asian Americans, volunteers from the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund conducted bilingual exit polling to document voter problems at the polling station. The Fund dispatched more than 800 volunteers to 14 states and planned to poll 10,000 Asian Americans.

Chin, who has insisted on voting since she became an American citizen, said that Sandy did not prevent her from voting.

“The government should help citizens,” she said.

Note: The post was originally posted in BER’s Election Day 2012 blog.