Introducing Brooklyn’s new Offshore Wind Innovation Hub and its director


Tone Søndergaard, Director of the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub at Urban Future Lab / ACRE at NYU Tandon School of Engineering

The Offshore Wind Innovation Hub — a coworking community and accelerator program launched specifically to help startups developing new technologies for the global offshore wind industry and to make New York City a major locus of wind power — is the latest initiative to emerge from NYU Tandon’s Urban Future Lab (UFL).

The hub, which recently opened applications for its inaugural cohort of companies, is directed by Tone Søndergaard, who spoke to us about her background, the future of wind power, and how NYU Tandon’s sustainability efforts are helping to change the face of the city.

How did you become interested in wind power?

I originally come from Varde, a small town in Western Denmark, very close to the Port of Esbjerg, which is the world's largest base port for offshore wind. The turbine manufacturer in Varde was was the town’s biggest employer, so everyone either worked there or had a family member who did. Turbines dominated our landscape and our local economy. I took a class trip to the factory when I was about 11 and became deeply fascinated by these giant, powerful machines that played such a big role in life in Varde. 

How did you get involved in the Urban Future Lab?

That’s a little bit of a long story. I loved both business and politics, and I found work involving trade policy at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I earned a master’s degree in International Business and Politics from Copenhagen Business School, and as part of my academic program, I came to New York City to study at Columbia. While I was there, contacts at the Confederation of Danish Industry, a group with some 19,000 member companies, reached out to me. They were partnering with State of Green, an organization whose goal is to make Denmark independent of fossil fuels by 2050, to launch the Danish Cleantech Hub, which was going to be housed at the UFL. Because I was already in New York, they offered me a job, and that’s how I came to be here, working collaboratively with Pat Sapinsley, the UFL’s managing director.

What were the goals of the Danish Cleantech Hub?

Since opening in 2013, the hub has served as an entry point for all cleantech-related activities between Denmark and New York. It’s a win-win situation. We provide Danish companies with a strong network and the visibility needed to successfully bring Danish sustainability solutions to the U.S., and the U.S. gets the chance to tap into Danish governmental know-how. We encourage information exchanges about new approaches to energy efficiency, climate adaptation, resiliency, and other vital issues. In that capacity, I helped spearhead projects like Circular City Week, a festival celebrating how circular-economy practices such as reuse, recycling, and upcycling can transform urban industries and the city as a whole.  

I knew that Pat was thinking of  exploring how the UFL could become more involved in offshore wind, so I was excited to hear that the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub was being planned and even more excited to be offered the position of director.  

Tell us more about the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub. What was its genesis? What kind of startups do you envision joining? What benefits will they receive? 

As far as its genesis, you need to know about Equinor, which is an international energy company based in Norway. They have a large portfolio of projects that include renewables and low-carbon initiatives, and their mission is to become a totally net-zero energy company by 2050. They won a bid to build a world-class offshore wind staging and assembly facility at Industry City in Sunset Park, in partnership with bp and wanted to give back to the local community at the same time.

They reached out to the UFL with the idea of funding an initiative aimed at startups involved in advancing the use of wind power. We’re now fielding applications for our first cohort, which will start in June, and we’re focusing on technologies that might help Equinor with site exploration, such as underwater autonomous vehicles, digital twin technologies aimed at improving the turbine instillation process or cabling and transmission innovations — in other words getting the power from the turbines back to shore.

Tenant companies will get guidance in bridging the gap between technology development and commercialization, access to mentors, help scaling up, professional development programming, and a robust network of industry partners, investors, thought leaders, and public entities.

Why is wind power so important?

A turbine turns wind energy into electricity by using the aerodynamic force from large rotor blades, which work similar to the blades of a fan. Today, industry sources estimate that there are about 70,000 wind turbines across the country generating reliable, green power to the equivalent of 43 million American homes, significantly cutting reliance on fossil fuels. And the industry is poised for even more explosive growth. Equinor estimates that when their projects, Empire Wind and Beacon Wind, are operational, they’ll be able to supply New York with 3.3 gigawatts of renewable energy.

Offshore wind, specifically, poses great potential because it allows many, large turbines to be placed near major urban areas like New York, whereas land-based turbines must often be placed in rural areas,

Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, wind power can generate jobs, provide tax revenue, and help revitalize the economy.

What is NYU Tandon’s role?

We anticipate that some of the companies in our cohorts will take advantage of the wealth of sustainability research emerging from Tandon labs and the talent pool presented by its bright, diverse student body.

And as home to the UFL, the School is, by extension, providing us with a wonderful home. We are co-located alongside Equinor at Industry City, with space for dozens of companies. I just have to look out my office window, and I can envision the South Brooklyn Martine Terminal becoming the next Esbjerg!

In addition to the Offshore Wind Innovation HubUFL initiatives include ACRE, the premier incubator devoted to helping cleantech, smart grid, and sustainable smart cities companies grow; a global incubator program run in partnership with Innovate UK and Enterprise Europe Network, designed to support U.K.-based cleantech enterprises as they enter the U.S. market; the Low-Carbon Hydrogen Accelerator, whose target companies are advancing key innovations to enable a low-carbon hydrogen economy; and the Carbon to Value (C2V) Initiative, aimed at the commercialization of technologies that capture and convert carbon dioxide into valuable end products or services. 

With a focus on meeting the world’s most pressing energy and environmental needs, the UFL’s efforts have had quantifiable results: since launching in 2014 in partnership with local government and NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), the Lab has incubated some 70 successful companies, raised well over $1 billion in capital, and created more than 1,000 jobs — helping boost the city’s green economy and laying a solid foundation for Tandon’s continuing commitment to sustainability research and applications

“I am thrilled to see the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub come to fruition,” said Pat Sapinsley, Managing Director of the Urban Future Lab. “Equinor is a wonderful partner and together we hope to build an Offshore Wind Industry in New York State. Equinor's port improvements and workforce training and our work to bring the necessary small tech companies to this area will bring real economic development to the state. At the same time, our other UFL programs are building the first ecosystems for carbontech companies through our C2V Initiative, for clean hydrogen companies through our LCHA program, bringing international companies to New York through our Innovate UK and with many collaborators, helping to make New York the center of climate tech in the Northeast.”