Five Questions For...

Debera Johnson, founder and executive director, Pratt Design Incubator
ROOKLYN, New York — The backstory of the Pratt Design Incubator isn’t a complicated narrative: a couple of just-graduated Pratt Institute students were telling Deb Johnson, then chair of the industrial design program, that they’d stick around—if she could find them a space to work. “I said, ‘Done’,” says Johnson. “I got tired of seeing great student work turn into portfolio pieces and evaporate.”
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And so in 2002, she launched the collaborative with the mission of providing sustainable business incubation. Ten years later, the incubator has helped launch 23 companies; in 2010 its businesses generated more than $4 million in revenue and created about 50 jobs. (Some of the start ups currently in residence: Dargelos, which makes accessories and garments that encourage bicycling; SMIT, which stands for Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology; and Bus Roots, which connects urban communities with nature in “practical and playful ways.”)

On a recent afternoon, Johnson gave ?What If! Director Jennifer Ebert a tour of the incubator’s facilities at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and shared some of her learnings from the last decade. Edited excerpts:

Ebert: In the innovation business, we often focus on large companies and how their learnings apply to other big companies. I want to learn about models on the fringe. Your space plays a big role in helping get designers and entrepreneurs off the ground. Why is space so important?

Johnson: You need a place to make a nest, to experiment, to prototype—a place to go, to show up to. Entrepreneurship often happens in one’s pajamas. I wanted to create a place that made it feel like you had a responsibility to be there. The incubator was there to create that space to say, I’ve got an idea—now what do I do?

How do you get them thinking about commercial aspects—costs, realities? And what’s your role when it gets down to the granularity of these things?

The biggest challenge is scaling. That’s why I want to start a small-run production facility. When someone who runs one of the companies comes to me and says, “I can’t afford success because if I get an order of 100, I can’t do it,” that’s a scale problem. If we can bridge that gap for them, we will do so much for entrepreneurship in the city.

I’m certainly available for meetings; we put mentors out there. But we don’t want to knock the entrepreneur out of them. They have to be bootstrapping and making those decisions. Our most successful business, they make outdoor wear for dogs—camping equipment, that kind of thing. Their first product was a harness for dogs in cars—a kind of seatbelt. A dog could run back and forth without jumping out of the window. It’s called Kurgo, and now they’re about a $10 million company.

Community, forming partnerships—is that what makes this work?

We love for our companies to get established in Brooklyn. Many of our companies work with each other now. Besides launching companies, we do consulting. I’ll put together a team of people to work on a project from the network of people I know. These aren’t people who are trying to create some piece of software or an app and sell it to Facebook and move to Hawaii. These are artists at heart who are connected to the work that their company produces, and they never want to lose that connection.

I’ve heard you talk about sustainability. Talk a little more about that.

I like the word “consequences.” Designers generally look at form and function, and that’s their conversation. And now consequences have to be part of that conversation. We’re interested in businesses that are dealing with consequences—the impact of what they’re doing. Financial sustainability, environmental sustainability, social equity.

Is there an expectation around what “participation” in the community means? Are those values explicit?

Oh, very, yes. If they don’t talk about wanting to be a part of the incubator community, we’re not the place for them. It’s absolutely expected. Understanding what each of the businesses is and understanding their challenges is how people help out. It’s not only thinking about yourself in the space. That’s why there aren’t really walls.

FROM the greenhouse