When Priska Diaz’s infant son, Carlton, suffered from painful colic, she tried every baby bottle on the market to make feeding less painful. Nothing worked, but Diaz concluded the air induction on the bottles was causing his problem.
Diaz — who’d earned a master’s degree in design from Pratt Institute and worked as an art director in the health-and-beauty industry — got to work designing her own bottles, complete with nipples that mirrored the shape of a woman’s breast. To make sure they gave infants relief, she arranged for them to be tested in a small clinical trial. With 75% of the babies seeing an improvement, she knew she was onto something. “The feedback was overwhelming,” recalls Diaz.
Diaz launched her invention, the Bare Air-Free Bottle by Bittylab, in late 2015, rolling it out in 185 Babies “R” Us stores and selling it online. She now runs the business from her home, with the help of outsourced manufacturing and warehousing partners. She drew on advice from SCORE Westchester and secured loans from two local lenders: New York Community Capital and Pursuit. She is now working on a version that, if it makes it through FDA clearance, will be classified as a medical device. She is also applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Diaz is one of many Westchester-based entrepreneurs who are invigorating the local economy with their endeavors. In addition to well-known large and midsize corporate employers, including IBM, Dannon, MasterCard, and Regeneron, the county is home to 28,522 small businesses with between one and 20 employees, according to U.S. Census data, and 102,917 “nonemployer” firms, which don’t have any employees on payroll. More than 10% of the nation’s patents were filed by companies based in Westchester, according to Visit Westchester County, NY.
Those numbers are likely to climb once the final figures from 2021 are in. “There’s always an uptick in entrepreneurship when there’s economic dislocation,” says Deborah Novick, director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for the Westchester County Office of Economic Development. “People have to find something new to do, which was certainly the case during COVID.”
The Great Resignation has also prompted some area residents to take a fresh look at their careers. “For some people, that means following a dream of starting their own businesses,” says Michael Romita, president of the Westchester County Association, a business advocacy organization.
Many entrepreneurs and small-business owners have found there are powerful advantages to starting a business in Westchester. “Our real estate is more affordable than New York City,” Novick points out. “We have an amazing quality of life here — a lot of tourism, a lot of beautiful outdoor resources, walkable downtowns, great transportation.”
SCORE Westchester — which provides mentorship and both in-person and online education to entrepreneurs in the area — has seen an uptick in interest in recent months, particularly from people who would like to start service businesses. “During COVID, we found that as unemployment increased, more people were looking for opportunities to start their own businesses,” says David Kellogg, chairman of the organization. “We are working with a very diverse group of clients who are coming at this not with MBAs but with a real passion and confidence that they can deliver value to customers.”
“We are working with a very diverse group of clients who are coming at this not with MBAs but with a real passion and confidence that they can deliver value to customers.”
—David Kellogg, SCORE Westchester
One client is Lewisboro resident Scott Binger, who sought advice from Kellogg and another volunteer at the organization for the past six months on how to grow his custom, cloud-based applications business, Evolytix, which he runs from his home and an office in Ridgefield, Connecticut. “We work with many clients in the Westchester area,” says Binger. “I think it’s a vibrant, exciting place to do business.”
He’s likely to have more company in the future. Westchester Innovation Network (WIN) is working on a plan to attract and retain key innovators in the county for five, 10, and 25 years or more. It is matching innovators with companies that are willing to help them test their products and services. “The whole idea is for these entrepreneurs to grow and to really grow Westchester,” says Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester, which launched the initiative.
WIN is working with the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Iona College to improve support for minority- and women-owned businesses. The institute will start by focusing on opportunities in Mount Vernon.
To keep the action going, the county — along with local universities and other organizations — are pouring resources into stimulating entrepreneurship and new-business creation.
In 2021, 218 businesses completed the Launch1000 program, a course started during the pandemic to help local residents start businesses or create income streams for themselves, according to Novick. Participants learn how to evaluate their business ideas, test them with potential customers, and determine how likely they are to succeed. “People tend to build their businesses in the places where they’re living,” says Novick. “Helping them get their new ventures off the ground is a way of helping them put down roots here.”
So far, the results have been promising. “The vast majority were already generating revenue when the program ended,” adds Novick.
The county’s startup incubators and accelerators are also filling up. In White Plains, the by-application-only Element 46 incubator, founded in 2019, has been offering mentorships to 15 startups at a time. The county’s official incubator offers education on how to start and scale a business idea, give startups access to desk space for six months, and offers founders access to professional service providers and mentors who are experts on business strategy.
The Westchester County Biosciences Accelerator, a six-month program in White Plains introduced by the county’s Office of Economic Development in 2019, offers entrepreneurship education and networking opportunities to seed-stage ventures in areas such as therapeutics, digital health, diagnostics, research tools, and materials technology.
In January 2022, the biosciences accelerator launched its second cohort, made up of 12 biosciences entrepreneurs looking to grow their ventures and attract funding. The county has a well-developed biosciences industry, with 20% of the state’s bioscientists employed in Westchester, according to Novick. The accelerator, in conjunction with the 2022 Accelerator for Biosciences in Connecticut, had its 10th annual pitch day on May 12.
BioInc@NYMC, a LEED-certified biotechnology incubator at New York Medical College in Valhalla that was launched in 2014, expanded with 10,000 additional square feet of space in 2019 and offers wet and dry lab space to a variety of startups. Sapience Therapeutics, one of its residents, received a federal Small Business Innovation and Research Grant in 2021 for therapeutics it developed for use in oncology.
Ossining Innovates!, an organization that aims to empower small and midsize communities through entrepreneurship, has been running the Inclusive Innovation Accelerator since 2020. The incubator teaches entrepreneurial thinking, how to validate ideas, pitching and other skills, and offers weekly classes, as well as group mentor meetings. Applicants interviewed for its fourth cohort this past spring, and the latest session was slated to begin on April 28.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities in the area are embracing entrepreneurship education. The Professional Development Center at SUNY Westchester Community College, for instance, offers a curriculum to counsel entrepreneurs, business owners and their employees. Iona’s Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation offers an undergraduate minor, majors in both entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership, and a graduate certificate.
The Hynes Institute was selected by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veteran & Military Families to support its $5 million Community Navigator Pilot Program, funded by the SBA. The new program provides free services to the veteran entrepreneurship community in New York State and the National Capital Region in areas such as entrepreneurship education and technical assistance.
For many entrepreneurs, Westchester remains the ideal place for starting and nurturing businesses that grow way beyond its borders. Irvington resident Scott Krady started his content agency, Magnitude Inc., in 2019, taking it full-time in 2021. The business, which mostly serves finance and technology companies, has now grown to five full-time team members and more than $1 million in annual revenue. “We’re thrilled at the growth right now,” says Krady. “Our clients are all over the world.”
Westchester-based entrepreneurs have numerous resources at their disposal when they are ready to take their ideas to the next level. Here are a few of the organizations willing to help and guide you along the path to startup success.
Business Council of Westchester
The Catalyst: Westchester County Office of Economic Development
Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (Iona College)
Westchester County Association
Westchester County Biosciences Accelerator