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An Interview With Debera Johnson, Founder And Executive Director, Pratt Design Incubator For Sustainable Innovation (Part 1)

Posted on Friday, Feb 11th 2011

By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold

Today I am talking to Debera Johnson, founder and executive director of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. The incubator is a part of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies at Pratt Institute, which is an art, design, and architecture college in New York City.  Since its inception in 2002, the incubator has supported the launch of 15 companies, of which 12 are still in business. In 2010, its companies generated more than $4.2 in revenue and are currently employing 36 employees.

Irina: Hi, Debera. Could we start with your personal background?

Debera: Sure. I came to Pratt to study industrial design and eventually started teaching in the program, probably in 1988. Then, I became chair of the industrial design program in 1997. It was during that time, in about 2002, that I started the Pratt Design Incubator.

It was started within the industrial design program. When I stepped down as chair of the industrial design program, I convinced the school to institutionalize the incubator. We started to . . . instead of having one company at a time coming in, we started to bring in three companies at a time. Now, our goal is to have, any given time, about 10 companies.s

My educational experience was industrial design. My professional experience was museum exhibit design. When I started teaching, I shifted into a completely academic career.

Irina: Where is the Pratt Design Incubator located? What are the ways to reach you?

Debera: We’re located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The address is . . . I usually give the Pratt address just because that where I want people to send me things versus at the incubator. The Navy Yard’s just not that reliable for mail. The mailing address would be Debera Johnson, Pratt Design Incubator, 200 Willoughby Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11205. We’re eventually, moving back to that address. For e-mail [] works or [].

Irina: Do you have a geographical focus for your services?

Debera: Being located in Brooklyn, where there’s a lot of small manufacturing, one of our goals is to help bring business to the small manufacturers. So, the various companies, we want to essentially reach out to the industrial community to have products made, as often as possible.

Irina: And entrepreneurs who are looking to apply for your services should be located where?

Debera: Well, they should be in the New York/Brooklyn area, so Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and so on.

Irina: How is the Pratt Design Incubator structured?

Debera: The Pratt Design Incubator is a part of Pratt Design Institute, which is an art, design, and architecture college here in New York City. It’s non-profit and falls under the university. Basically, you have Pratt Institute. Part of Pratt Institute is the Center for Sustainable Design Studies (CSDS), and the incubator is a part of CSDS.

Irina: How is the the incubator funded?

Debera: It’s funded by the school. We also create revenue through offering workshops and providing design services to various people, various companies. We act as a sustainable design consultancy as well as holding workshops and things like that.

Irina: How many companies do you currently incubate?

Debera: Right now, I’d say we have eight companies. There are probably about 25 people, total, working there.

Irina: How many people work for the incubator?

Debera: Right now, it’s just me, and I hire interns. In the consultancy, what we do is, when we bring in a project, I’ll hire the appropriate people to work exclusively on that project. We hire them as freelancers and consultants versus regular employees.

Irina: So, the focus of the Pratt Design Incubator is sustainable design. Any specific sector?

Debera: No. That’s one of the nice things about design. Design is a part of any business. Any time you’re producing a product or a service, you’re thinking about how it’s designed, how the user is going to use it.

It’s functional aesthetics. In our case, we had consequences. When you’re designing something, you not only think about how it works and how it looks. You really need to think about the impact it has on the environment and on society. The incubator is centered on that concept.

Irina: At what stage of their development should companies apply to become a part of your incubator?

Debera: I think that we’ve taken people right out of school. Sometimes that works well, but that’s our highest risk. We also accept people who are one year in. We like people as they’re developing their ideas and products versus people who’ve been at it for a couple of years.

This segment is part 1 in the series : An Interview With Debera Johnson, Founder And Executive Director, Pratt Design Incubator For Sustainable Innovation
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