Connecting with Bill Sobel

Justin Hendrix is a man of many interests — media, Americana music, space news … oh, and he plays the banjo. But the real story is that he is executive director of the NYC Media Lab, where he "helps companies discover."

The NYC Media Lab "connects technologists in digital media and technology companies with bright minds in New York City's universities" to drive innovation and talent development. A public-private partnership launched by the New York City Economic Development Corp., Columbia University and New York University, the Lab hosts events and seeds projects "to foster collaboration across a range of disciplines core to the future of media."

With an impressive roster of corporate members — HBO, Time Warner Cable, Hearst, AT&T, Verizon, News Corp. and NBCUniversal — the Lab is designed to spur innovation. More specifically, in its own words, "generate fresh thinking that creates value through research, prototyping, knowledge transfer, talent development, and human relationships."

The Evolving Media Landscape

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Hendrix writes and speaks on media and innovation. He holds a BA from the College of William and Mary and a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization from the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin.

After providing a tour of the Lab's headquarters in Brooklyn, he sat down with us to share his insights.

Sobel: Before your relationship with the media lab you were vice president, business development and innovation for The Economist Group in the Americas, where you directed the group's innovation process, including prototyping, testing and commercializing new digital media business concepts. How did that lead you to your current role?

Hendrix: I spent a dozen years at The Economist, where I had roles ranging from directing brand marketing and communications to running the thought leadership events business. I was always fascinated by digital media and the opportunities to extend The Economist brand into mobile, social and video, and had the opportunity in these roles to experiment a great deal. When I took the role of VP, Business Development and Innovation, the company was experimenting with launching new lines of business, particularly to take advantage of opportunities in digital.

In this role, I had an opportunity to learn and practice innovation theory and methods. I had the unique chance to work with the great thinkers at Innosight, the innovation consulting firm founded by Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, to develop a methodology to generate and test new prototype business concepts. I also completed a master's degree in technology commercialization, which focused on technology management, new venture strategy and innovation.

Along the way I came across NYC Media Lab and reached out to the founding Executive Director, Roger Neal, to learn more about what seemed like a truly unique effort to connect media companies with promising new technologies by working with New York City’s universities. A few months later, I was working for him as the second employee of this startup public-private partnership. When the opportunity to lead the Lab’s next stage of development came up, I was thrilled at the chance to take on the task.

Sobel: How did the Lab get started, who is involved and how is it funded?

Hendrix: NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering is the administering institution for NYC Media Lab and our offices are in the Metrotech Center in Brooklyn, where we sit nearby to the electrical engineering and computer science departments as well as the Media and Games Network facility or MAGNET, which includes faculty and programs from across NYU. NYC Media Lab was started by a consortium including NYU Poly, Columbia University and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which provided seed funds for the Lab through a donation from Time Warner Cable.

In future, the goal for the Lab is to be funded largely through corporate membership, and we are on track to do just that, with several other companies considering membership. We are also beginning to fulfill the mission of the Lab to build connections across the universities in the city. While we work very closely with NYU and Columbia, we have done projects with Parsons at The New School, for instance, and faculty from Cornell Tech and CUNY have participated in our programs. We hope to do more in future to make the Lab a neutral place where companies and institutions across the city that share similar curiosities can meet and collaborate.

Sobel: You mentioned that News Corp. recently signed on as NYC Media Lab's eighth corporate member, joining AT&T, ESPN, HBO, Hearst, NBCUniversal, Time Warner Cable and Verizon. Can you talk a bit about the partnerships you have developed with these companies?

Hendrix: These companies have supported the Lab from its earliest days. In addition to financial support, they provide guidance and advice on programs, events and features of membership. Like any startup, the Lab’s services and model isn't exactly shrink-wrapped. It’s been so important to have such excellent advisors. Our member companies participate in roundtable events on technology issues ranging across many disciplines, from the future of mobile interfaces to data and content, connect with one another and with faculty, students and other university resources and direct seed research projects on areas of interest to them.

So far, we've seen that seed projects can take a variety of forms. For instance, recently Verizon crafted a project on adaptive streaming video with electrical engineers at NYU Poly, looking for opportunities to improve streaming video services by analyzing Hulu, Netflix and Redbox Instant. Hearst partnered with a team of design and technology MFA students at Parsons the New School to generate prototype app concepts on top of their new API. And Time Warner Cable teamed up with a computer scientist at NYU Poly to get a view on how various trends will affect home bandwidth requirement scenarios in the future. NYC Media Lab brokers these projects; member companies have access to the results.

Sobel: Can you talk a bit about your current projects?

Hendrix: We’re engaged in a new round of seed projects on topics ranging from mobile technologies for improved traffic safety to perception issues related to content on high resolution, small-screen devices like tablets. Some of our members are preparing to engage in new projects related to prototyping new applications and dreaming up the next wave of media products. And we’re focused on a handful of big events. For instance we recently hosted Mobile Futures, a look at what’s on the verge of commercialization, what’s still in the lab, and what advances will change the nature of media and communications in the future. We're doing that in partnership with Razorfish.

Sobel: How can CIOs, CMOs and marketing and information managers take advantage with some of the services you provide?

Hendrix: There are amazing opportunities for the exploitation of content and information in new digital media. Advances in content management, in social media, in video and in a variety of fields such as the data sciences and other disciplines make this space very exciting. We encourage people to try new things, and to think experimentally. NYC Media Lab offers member companies the opportunity at relatively low cost to engage in exploration, to connect with emerging talent — from designers to engineers — who can help you spend your imagination before you spend too much money.

Sobel: Any final thoughts?

Hendrix: I have a great job. It’s about working with New York City’s best media and digital technology companies to help them innovate by connecting them with ideas, technology and talent on the city’s campuses. New York City is the media capital of the world. The industry is a huge employer and the scene is vibrant- from the startups through to the big companies that call the city home. And New York is also home to some of the greatest faculty and students — from engineering to design — that are leading the industry into the future. I have the privilege to observe and participate in this strong and growing ecosystem, and I wake up every day excited about what’s next.