Schenectady lures tech ‘rock star’
Inventions company Quirky chooses Sch’dy for third global location
Updated 10:43 a.m.
SCHENECTADY Quirky, with its West Chelsea headquarters, charismatic young founder, recent panel at South by Southwest and beer-fueled Thursday night meetings, is one of those still new, unmistakably hip companies whose success has been fueled by a really great premise.
Anyone in the world is invited to submit an idea for an invention, and Quirky will make it, put it on store shelves and share the revenue with that person.
The company opened a second location in Hong Kong just a year after it was founded in 2009 on the motto “making invention accessible.” On Thursday, it revealed a third location: Schenectady.
Not that Schenectady’s not hip, but the company’s arrival stirred more than the usual excitement among local officials who seemed to be aware that this bit of economic development news was interesting beyond just the number of jobs it would create (180 over the next three years).
“This guy, Ben Kaufman, is kind of a rock star,” said Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Ray Gillen. “He’s been on Leno, the Sunday morning talk shows. He’s just a very hot guy in tech right now.”
So Schenectady rolled out the metaphorical red carpet for the company when it learned it was looking to open a third location somewhere relatively close to its Manhattan headquarters, taking Kaufman around to all the interesting places the city has to offer — Proctors, the soon-to-open Mexican Radio, other restaurants and cafes.
“They saw a very vibrant and exciting downtown, places to go, places to hang out,” said Gillen. “We meet their hipness quotient, if you will, because we have the amenities that they’re looking for.”
During a visit to the Electric City about a month ago, Kaufman toured the top two floors of Center City, which overlook downtown and the iconic General Electric sign. He had dinner at Johnny’s, which occupies the first floor of the building, and was excited about the activity up and down State Street, not to mention the city’s status as “the town with the most storied invention history in the U.S.”
“When we told our New York team about Schenectady, there were literally countless hands that went up who said, ‘I’d love to move up there,’ ” Kaufman said.
Such statements are no longer head-scratchers, though Kaufman seemed aware that announcing Schenectady as a Quirky location would still be a bit surprising to the outside world. On Thursday, when he announced the move at a packed news conference at Proctors, his company tweeted: “That’s right, Quirky is setting up shop in Schenectady, New York. (Pronounced: Sk-uh-neck-tuh-dee).”
Of course, the best reason of all to locate in Schenectady could be seen from a window on the top floor of the City Center: General Electric. Quirky and GE partnered in April 2013 to share patents and together were able to develop a line of app-enabled products, including the “smartest air conditioner in the world” that launched just last week.
“GE and Schenectady gave the world electricity, the first television broadcast, the steam turbine and dozens of other transformative inventions,” said Kaufman in a news release. “We can’t wait to set up shop here and be a part of that history. We’re really excited to join this community — which continues to be a world leader in technology and manufacturing — and continue Schenectady’s tradition of innovation.”
Quirky will occupy the top two floors of Center City on State Street. Construction is already under way to retrofit the fourth and fifth floors, about 22,000 square feet, to be in line with the company’s open floor plan. Rotterdam developer Galesi Group owns the building, which has other tenants including CVS Pharmacy, the YMCA, Schenectady County Community College and more.
The company will receive nearly $1 million in local and state money to set up here and create 180 jobs over the next three years. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority is providing a $450,000 grant and Empire State Development is providing $500,000 in Excelsior Jobs Program tax credits.
The new space will be ready by May. In fact, Quirky is already recruiting employees for the office, which will serve as part quality-assurance lab, part community support.
The company is hosting a career fair April 3 from noon to 2 p.m. at Key Hall at Proctors Theatre. Individuals can also apply for a job at www.quirky.com/about/careers.
So far, five employees from the Manhattan office have decided to move upstate and have already begun leasing apartments downtown, Gillen said. More are expected to come.
Quirky’s whole brand is about taking ideas from the pipe-dream stage to actual products on store shelves. In September 2013, when Kaufman was 26, New York Magazine profiled the company and offered this explanation for how it all works:
“Here’s Ben Kaufman’s business, in capsule form. You have an idea for an invention. You submit your concept, one of 3,000 per week, to his website, Quirky. Hundreds of users vote on it, and the most up-voted ideas rise to the top of the pile. Then, every Thursday night, 200 people gather under a bank of webcams, with Kaufman and three or four other people up front, where they pick over the front-runners. Viewers weigh in again, and the room chooses three items to put into development, with Quirky’s engineers taking over. (They once got a kitchen item — an egg separator called Pluck — into Bed Bath & Beyond 29 days after the crit ended.) If you voted for, say, the winning color, your name will appear, in microtype, on the product’s packaging, and you’ll get a tiny slice of the profits. It’s a pretty rare company that’s so hippieish — Let’s have everyone get a say! — yet so purely free-market.”
The company is backed by about $175 million in venture funds and has nearly $50 million in annual revenue. Just two months ago, it made its first millionaire inventor.
“We do all this for one simple reason,” Kaufman said. “We think the way invention happens has changed. The best ideas in the world don’t come from boardrooms. They come from living rooms. And our company is in every single living room all across the country listening to what those best ideas are and making sure nothing stands in the way of these products coming out and being a huge success.”
Quirky launches one invention to the world every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at noon. They have ranged from the egg yolk separator to a citrus squeezer to a hot dog slicer to a flexible surge protector. For this last invention, product packaging shows a picture of the inventor (Jake Zien, of Milwaukee, Wis.) and lists the number of people around the world who influenced the final product by choosing a color or a name or so on (852). All of the invented products are packaged like this, and appear in stores such as Home Depot, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Target, as well as online at Amazon.com and Quirky.com.
When people buy the world’s smartest air conditioner, they will know that it’s a Quirky product, but also that it was invented by a guy named Garthen Leslie from Maryland. Leslie was working at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., when he came up with the idea for an air conditioner that knows when you’re on your way home.
“These air conditioners are a huge energy hog,” said Kaufman. “And [Garthen] thought, someone should make a smart air conditioner that learns your preferences and only turns itself on when you absolutely need it. He couldn’t just make an air conditioner though. So he sat on the idea until he heard about Quirky. He saw us on the Jay Leno show and submitted his idea and his idea got voted up.”
Quirky partnered with GE Appliances to make the air conditioner, called Aros, and it should be on Home Depot shelves in fewer than three months. Con Edison is even looking to offer a rebate to New York City dwellers who use the product, Kaufman said Thursday.
The Quirky-GE partnership is only just beginning, said GE Global Research Director Mark Little.
“We are a gigantic global company that spends billions every year on innovation,” he said. “We search the world for great partners to work with. We found an outstanding partner in Quirky. We combine our technical might and skill with a startup company that has tremendous energy to innovate around the world. This is a combination that can’t be beat.”