Meet the ex-Wall Street guy running the Navy Yard’s new hardware incubator

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Lucille Barrett
Lucille Barrett
Future teen idol. Hardcore tv lover. Social media guru. Zombie aficionado. Travel scholar. Biker, shiba-inu lover, audiophile, Mad Men fan and proud pixelpusher. Working at the junction of minimalism and elegance to answer design problems with honest solutions. I'm fueled by craft beer, hip-hop and tortilla chips.
As we step inside New Lab‘s 84,000-square-foot facility at the Navy Yard, Varun Adibhatla immediately rattles off facts about its history.

Over a century old, the building was formerly used to assemble engines for warships such as the USS Arizona. Though he’s giving a tour, it doesn’t sound like a boilerplate. Soon enough, he confirms it’s not.

“My dad was in the Merchant Navy, so I’m familiar with nautical terms,” he said.

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Unlike his father, a naval engineer in India, Adibhatla, 31, has spent much of his career as a software developer, working in banking and building intangible things. But in his new role as the director of the yet-to-launch Urban Tech Hub at New Lab, he’s performing what he believes is his own version of public service, with companies that will be making products you can touch and hold, no less.

The Urban Tech Hub is a new program from New Lab and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that aims to support hardware companies addressing challenges such as transportation, energy, and air quality, which we reported earlier today. It’s catering to growth-stage companies, those that have already raised funding and have a sense of their product, to distinguish itself from other hardware startup programs (there’s NYCEDC’s Next Top Makers, as well as the similarly-named Urban-X, which will launch in Greenpoint this fall.)

Adibhatla knows from experience what the participants will be going through. Before joining the Urban Tech Hub, he was a founding member of Argo Labs, a collective of data scientists and developers focused on improving government operations who met at NYU’s Center of Urban Science and Progress in the MetroTech complex in Downtown Brooklyn.

Last year, the group won a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a device that surveyed street surfaces’ quality. As part of that project, Argo Labs worked with the City of Syracuse, collecting street quality data for a cumulative stretch of some 500 miles. The work involved plenty of interactions with local officials, which Adibhatla said was the most informative part of his experience. Now, at Urban Tech Hub, he’s looking to pay it forward.

“This is a great way to share that knowledge with growth-stage companies,” he said.


Software Banking to Civic Tech

Adibhatla grew up in Hyderabad, India. Tinkering was in his blood: his father, the naval engineer, was “a total gearhead,” in Adibhatla’s words, and Adibhatla learned to fix household appliances from an early age. But he preferred to tackle different sorts of problems. After graduating from college in Hyderabad with a degree in information technology, he enrolled in a master’s program in human-computer interaction at Penn State.

Even then, Adibhatla’s work had a public service bent. One of his projects involved developing a platform for first responders. But shortly after he graduated in 2008, the recession hit, and finance proved to be his best option, especially given his need for an employer to sponsor his visa. He began his career at BNP Paribas as a programmer analyst and later moved to Bank of America, where he worked in high-frequency trading. After receiving his green card in 2014, Adibhatla decided to explore a new path outside of banking.

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