Uptown Entrepreneurs Pitch Tech Ideas in Bid to Put Harlem on App Map

By Jeff Mays on April 16, 2014 11:16am 

HARLEM — Curtis Sumpter admits he created his app Door2Door, which allows users to find all of the dry cleaners in their area and then arrange for clothing pick-up and payment, because he grew tired of performing the tedious task himself.

"I don't mind working hard to do something productive but I hate working hard to do something repetitive," said Sumpter, 36, a software programmer who lives in Harlem. "It's like GrubHub, but for dry cleaners," he said, comparing his work to the online food delivery site.

Sumpter, who read four thick books to teach himself the program language necessary to create the iPhone app, is putting the finishing touches on his creation. All he needs now is a partner to focus on the business side.

He's hoping to meet that person at the first Harlem Demo Day on April 23, where four uptown entrepreneurs will pitch their start-ups before a group of judges in the hopes of winning a cash prize and, more importantly, the relationships and contacts that could launch their businesses.

"There is a perception that businesses that originate in Harlem and whose founders live in Harlem are non-scaleable lifestyle businesses that can't create jobs," said Yvahn Martin, founder of the Harlem Co-working Meet Up group and one of Harlem Demo Day's sponsors along with Silicon Harlem, Spring Bank, the co-working incubator Harlem Garage and TTW Consulting.

"But there are a lot of people in Harlem with big ideas that can thrive," Martin added.

Among those pitching at the event, which will be held at Harlem Garage, is a company that created an app called Team Sync which facilitates shared social media experiences such as a training session or a group of people in different locations who want to watch a movie together.

Another mobile app, Track-Flo, allows construction managers to follow productivity on job sites in real time by using blueprints to follow production on the site.

"We are going to discover people who have not been recognized yet and give then the opportunity to move forward in this space," said Bruce Lincoln, co executive producer of Silicon Harlem which promotes networking around technology and entrepreneurship.

Over the last decade, New York City's share of total U.S. venture capital deals, helped by the tech sector, soared to 11.4 percent from 5.3 percent, according to a report from the Center for an Urban Future. Uptown entrepreneurs say they are lacking opportunities such as access to capital, the chance to pitch to investors and business expertise because lower Manhattan is more often associated with innovation.

"Traditionally, that's just the area where the most innovation happens so that's going to be where you will find most of the tech entrepreneurs," said Harlem Garage's Community Coordinator Ryan Young.

"But as rents rise, people are seeing that Harlem is a good place to live and ideas are forming here. The way people work is changing as more and more people are coming out of a corporate lifestyle with good ideas and asking, 'why can't it flourish in Harlem?'"

That change is evident in all of the new co-working spaces and incubators popping up in Harlem.

In addition to Harlem Garage, there's Harlem Biospace, a bio-tech incubator in West Harlem that filled up so quickly that the city's Economic Development Corporation has plans to launch a second incubator in the area. Silicon Harlem's monthly events grow more crowded each month.

"A lot of times people have ideas but they don't know where to get started. We want an environment where people can get that opportunity or their first helping hand," said Tasha Williams of TTW Consulting, one of the event's organizers. "I see that downtown, but I don't see that uptown or in The Bronx."

Lincoln, of Silicon Harlem, said the emerging tech and entrepreneurial sector may seem new but it has been bubbling in Harlem for the last decade. Factors such as Harlem's transportation network and having two major educational institutions, Columbia University and City College, have helped. The neighborhood also has certain intangibles.

"What's unique to Harlem is that it has always drawn creative, artistic people. Artists and creators today work with technology," said Lincoln.

Over the next 10 years Lincoln said he envisions major companies such as Google and Samsung with a Harlem presence along with a thriving entrepreneurial community. A pipeline from local high schools will help find the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

"We are a community on the rise," Lincoln said. "We see Harlem as being an innovation center."

The winners from Harlem Demo Day will receive a cash prize and a year of free business checking from Spring Bank along with public relations help from Pixel Prose Media.

Sumpter said his app has other likely uses and he's most interested in exposing his idea to the light of day, attracting a possible partner along with other investors and helping to diversify the tech sector.

"We are going through a shift where everything is changing and you can't have a small slice of people driving that change or change won't reach where it needs to be," Sumpter said.

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