The bright lights are on in a former law office downtown — and illuminating New Haven’s technology future.
Acuity Brands Inc., a leading provider of innovative light systems, turned on those lights and cut the ribbon on a new research and development center in the Elm City Wednesday during an opening ceremony.
Acuity Brands is a publicly traded company with fiscal 2018 net sales of $3.7 billion and 13,000 employees. It uses technology for “energy savings and comprehensive building systems integration.”
Based in Georgia, Acuity has a number of manufacturing facilities across North America including five in Mexico. The New Haven research center is the new high-tech home for about 45 engineers with room to grow by about 35 more. It also is the retrenching of the company’s position in Connecticut after beginning a series of acquisitions with the Wallingford-based Sensor Switch in 2009 and shuttering the Wallingford facility in 2015.
Laurent J. Vernerey, president of the Acuity Technology Group, said Wednesday that the acquisition of Sensor Switch was part of a strategy for the company to buy up a number of the best brands available in the marketplace and then position itself to invent technology, particularly in the early days of sensors. The invention aspect of the strategy is where Acuity expects the New Haven center to shine, he said.
“We needed a space that was a way to demonstrate first to our teams that we want to provide the best environment for them to be the best in developing the technology we need and also make a statement that we take seriously our investments into our technology,” Vernerey said.
On a tour of the center, which is housed on the 15th and 16th floors of Century Tower at 265 Church St. and technically has been open for a year, Acuity Brands Director of Engineering Ryan Zaveruha said that the build-out and design took its cues from tech giants like Google. That means the center isn’t your traditional office space with private offices.
The first-floor features not only workspace but community space for grabbing free coffee and snacks and playing a round of pool or ping pong. And employees can avoid the new year’s resolution crowds at local gyms because there is an onsite fitness facility and showers. Though many of Acuity’s employees can work from anywhere, including home, those that live in Downtown New Haven and can easily walk to work.
“The idea was to make it ‘Googley’ because we want to attract and retain young talent,” he said. “It was a lawyers’ office because it’s Wiggin and Dana’s building and they had all of these tiny little rooms because they needed privacy.”
Acuity got rid of a lot of the offices to make the center as open as possible and the few rooms that do exist are conference rooms. “Nobody here has a private office,” he said. “Everybody is out in public.”
And because Acuity is in the lighting business, the center uses its own products to control the lighting systems. Zaveruha showed off an Acuity graphic control touch screen that can be used to control the lights in the cafe on the first floor, changing the colors overhead.
“It’s a fun thing to play with,” he said. “This place is definitely a test-bed for all the things we install here. It’s a great way to make sure that it works.”
On the second floor, Acuity hardware and firmware engineers are busy developing new products and how to sustain them and testing quality.
“We have hundreds of devices that represent a whole floor of lighting control,” Zaveruha said. “With all of this, we can simulate a whole building worth of installation and run all sorts of tests on it, run regression tests, do development and all of that fun stuff.”
Fun is an important aspect of the center and why it makes sense for it to be in New Haven, according to Zaveruha. On providing an engineer dream space, he said, New Haven is a fun town with the charm and cache of bigger cities like Manhattan and Boston without the expense or the logistical challenges. The center has formed a restaurant club; engineers visit a different restaurant every week. Mecha Noodle on Crown Street is a favorite.
The rock-to-rock views from the 15th and 16th floor at 265 Church St. aren’t half bad either.
“I never get tired of this view,” Zaveruha said. “The views are definitely a selling point. It never gets old.”
Zaveruha said if there is a challenge, it’s finding more engineers to keep up with the business demand. He has four openings right now for two firmware engineers, an electrical engineer, and a full stack software developer. He’s been able to tap into local talent from Make Haven, and he’s keeping his eye on the Holberton School over at the Fair Haven-based innovation hub DISTRICT.
The engineers who work in New Haven like it, he said, because there’s always something to do whether it’s going out to the music venues or hitting any one of the many nearby restaurants.
Karen Holcom, who heads up associate engagement for Acuity, said creating a modern workplace for employees is important to the company. New Haven’s center has facilities with fewer walls, more space for gathering and working collaboratively.
“If you come to Conyers, I promise you it does not look like this,” Holcom said. “I heard someone say, ‘We need a place like this,’ and that’s exactly what I said. We want all our locations to be much more collaborative, not just our newer locations.”
Click the play button below to see video of the ribbon cutting.
Click the play button below to hear from Acuity top brass on the signifcance of the New Haven center.