Computer-tablet maker BAK USA did not just spring up miraculously on Buffalo’s East Side, where it employs refugees and other neighborhood residents. The company’s arrival was carefully calculated and in no small part due to the seeds planted by the governor’s StartUp NY plan, along with a variety of local support.
The latest chapter in BAK’s unlikely success story came Wednesday with the announcement of a new partnership with Microsoft, a shining example of what can be accomplished in Western New York.
Profiled in The News, company co-founder J.P. Bak overflows with enthusiasm about the future – in Buffalo. He and his son, Christian, director of products (and another co-founder, along with his mother, Ulla), were practically bursting at the seams talking about how they will continue fulfilling their mission of social enterprise.
They came to Buffalo a little more than a year ago, and already have their factory up and running on Michigan Avenue. There they have trained refugees and other marginalized workers, offering a career rather than a handout. Or, as they put it, teaching them how to fish. The workforce is at 32, with 20 in production. The “fish” are affordably priced tablets, improving digital access for institutions and communities. Last year, the Buffalo School District purchased $75,000 worth of discounted tablets, getting them into the hands of students who live in one of the poorest big cities in the nation.
And the Baks want to do more of the same, using Buffalo as their headquarters and spreading 100-employee operations across the country, but not in Silicon Valley. They want to go where jobs are scarce and people are poor. They want to go to the Baltimores and Clevelands and other places with significant numbers of impoverished children and families. They want to make a difference.
The Baks are used to making a difference. They began their previous low-cost tablet company, SurTab, because they wanted to stimulate economic development in Haiti after it had been devastated by an earthquake in 2010.
BAK opened a production plant and hired locals who assembled tens of thousands of tablets the company sold in impoverished African countries. Eventually the founders realized that the company had grown into a business that could be operated without their presence. They wanted to come to America – to someplace that needed them.
J.P. Bak is quick to tell the story of how someone suggested Buffalo, and that the governor’s StartUp NY program provided the necessary help. The program eliminates some taxes for a decade for companies that open on or near some college campuses.
BAK USA is housed on the top floor of the former Sheehan Memorial Hospital. Workers there get a windowed view and natural light, unlike the crowded basement factories often found in China.
BAK workers assemble the tablets using parts made in China. The company is working with local manufacturers in an attempt to have the components locally sourced. Creating a local supply chain would be a boost to the manufacturing economy in the area.
The company’s rapid development provides a model for other businesses looking to locate here.
BAK USA has made its home in Buffalo. It has proven to be a good move for the Baks and for us.