A tech accelerator grows in Brooklyn

A navy yard that once launched warships now launches hardware companies.

At its peak, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed as many as 70,000 people, building maritime vessels like the USS Maine, Missouri and Monitor. Military shipbuilding isn't coming back to Brooklyn anytime soon, and neither are those particular jobs. But industry is returning to the borough -- just not shipping in the military sense. Think more along the lines of product shipping, thanks to facilities like New Lab. This is about more than giving startups a place to set up shop. New Lab is about building a community -- not just to employ more New Yorkers, but to spur further innovation in one of the largest cities in the world.

New Lab isn't like some incubators you might be familiar with; you won't find a bunch of software developers crammed into a tiny midtown office or suburban home. It's more a hardware accelerator, like HAX, which means that the tenants are focused on building physical products and bringing them to market. That presents different challenges than those a software startup might face: While an app developer can put together its project solely with a computer, hardware needs to be prototyped. That means a company needs machining equipment and plenty of space.

The latter is plentiful at New Lab, which is housed in an old shipbuilding facility -- you can still see the cranes and rails from the structure's former life, lurking in the rafters. Studios have been constructed across two floors, some appropriating existing office space while others are in new rooms that have been constructed whole cloth on the massive first floor. New Lab can house up to 50 companies, with more than 400 people working in the building. Right now there are 40 companies and 230 individuals calling New Lab their workplace.

Each company can customize its studio to its unique needs and specifications; some spaces have a workshop feel, while others have gone for a more traditional office environment. A lot of the freedom stems from the fact that New Lab has a lot of shared facilities so companies don't have to worry about constructing their own. That includes obvious things like bathrooms, conference rooms and a café with a cafeteria space -- handy in a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of shops or restaurants.

However, the most important shared facilities that New Lab offers are its various machining shops, containing equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters. The 3D printers range from the standard countertop models like MakerBot and Ultimaker to the large-scale BigRep that lives on the second floor. Some machines, like laser cutters, can be prohibitively expensive, so regular access to one with personnel and training to help you use it are a godsend to small businesses. (New Lab doesn't have a water jet cutter yet, though.)

New Lab isn't just about tangible benefits, however. It hosts regular "show and tell" sessions where creators talk about what they're working on and solicit feedback from the other tenants. This kind of interaction not only leads to better products but also allows the various companies to collaborate on future projects, innovations that might not be possible if they worked separately.

It helps that the companies span a variety of disciplines and industries. The tenants include Waverly Labs, whose Pilot earpiece is a lot like the universal translator on Star Trek, helping you understand foreign languages on the go. In fact, a lot of the products coming out of New Lab feel like science fiction: StrongArm builds exoskeletons to help industrial workers carry heavy boxes, while BigRep's 3D printers are big enough to print full-size chairs and tables, some of which furnish the building. Not to be outdone, some of the systems built by Honeybee Robotics have actually been to another planet -- the company constructs components for the Mars rovers.

While the HAX accelerator is located in Shenzhen, to place startups closer to where their projects will be manufactured, New Lab's location in the middle of New York City puts it closer to the consumers who will someday buy these products. The eventual goal is to have public events, where people can come and meet with the companies and attend panels, workshops and even screenings in New Lab's large meeting space. Unfortunately, as an active industrial park, the Navy Yard is still closed to the public. But that is slowly changing -- there's a distillery at the yard that visitors can go to for tastings and tours, and Brooklyn Brewery is planning to open a beer garden there as well.

For now, New Lab is working on filling its few empty slots -- and it's not lacking for applicants. The current facility's been operating for a few months in a sort of beta phase, but this week will mark its official grand opening. It will open its doors to the public for a bit of a block party from 7PM to 10PM this Saturday, where you can partake of food trucks and free beer, maybe while also checking out some cool NYC-based tech.