Cornell Tech Aims to Reinvigorate NYC’s Silicon Alley

Every city wants a tech hub or campus, a place where its brightest minds can congregate to generate the ideas that will change the world.

Here’s how most cities conduct such an effort: a local university sets up a department for computer science or a similar discipline, then acquires shared office space off-campus. Next, a committee or working group persuades companies to join university researchers in that off-campus space to explore some interesting project.

For example, Carnegie Mellon paired with Uber on an initiative to research self-driving cars, an effort that made Pittsburgh one of the world’s centers for autonomous-vehicle research. And no fewer than three North Carolina universities help fuel that state’s famous “Research Triangle,” a major tech hub.

Cornell Tech is embracing a similar model. This new tech hub has risen on the southern tip of New York City’s Roosevelt Island, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. The campus is brand new, the futuristic edginess of its buildings balanced out by idyllic green spaces and bright white paths. Its academic program is a joint effort between Cornell University and the Technion (Israel institute of Technology), with additional funding (and land) from the City of New York.

Cornell Tech is attempting to harness the entrepreneurial spirit. “This has a lot to do with the natural response to the future of work,” said Aaron Holiday, Cornell Tech’s managing entrepreneurial officer. Students here recognize that many jobs once taken for granted are fading away, leading to their “heightened entrepreneurial interest.”

In other words, students who enter Cornell Tech aren’t necessarily interested in learning the skills to land a job at an established firm; they want the tools to solve a large problem, and then start a company to commercialize their work. It takes a combination of capital and education “to develop a certain type of talent,” Holiday added.

Let’s Do Business

The Cornell Tech campus embraces the same open office plans that are commonplace in tech. That design choice is deliberate; as Holiday puts it, the school is laid out to “facilitate collisions” between students and researchers, which in turn can lead to ideas.

Some of this culture is a legacy from the few years the school spent in a temporary space at Google’s NYC headquarters. “We did things to create courses that would invite the outside world,” Holiday said. The periodic visits to the school by tech-industry speakers were open to students and Google employees alike. Nor did the collaboration with the host company end there: when the students engaged in “sprints,” or 24-hour work sessions focused on a problem or project, Google engineers would stop by to help.

In its new location, Cornell Tech maintains its mission of imparting knowledge and theory to students. It also gives those students the opportunity to build real technology.

The mandatory Startup Ideas class is the starting point for this academic journey. Students are shown the entrepreneurial viewpoint and expected to find a tech problem to solve. There’s an emphasis on teamwork and recruiting the right people to work on projects.

Following the Startup Ideas class is a Studio class, offered in the spring, in which students have to craft the building blocks of a startup company—things like back-office functions, marketing, and even legal considerations.

Venture If You Dare

After Studio comes a Spinout class, which focuses on transitioning good ideas into the “real world.” For students who reach this point, the school dangles the prospect of a Startup Award totaling $100,000 in seed money. This funding is a convertible note agreement, which transforms into an equity stake in the startup, Holliday explained.

The same concept is used at Technion’s Jacobs Institute, where the Runway Post-Doctoral Program offers researchers the chance to build a company in one year. This opportunity to commercialize a tech breakthrough also comes as a convertible note agreement worth $100,000, which then transforms into an equity stake.

Cornell Tech also hosts an “Anti-Career Fair,” in which employers come to “see what the students build,” Holiday said. That potentially creates a career route for those graduates who don’t necessarily want to found or co-found a startup.

In a similar vein, there’s a Private Studio class. Companies submit practical tech problems, which are assigned to students to craft the solutions. This can place a student on a company’s radar for future opportunities or employment.

Will It Scale?

Cornell Tech currently enrolls 300 graduate students, with plans to eventually expand to 2,000 students. Holiday is confident the school will scale: “We’re still an Ivy League institution. We still benefit from that.”

The school’s location within “Silicon Alley” doesn’t hurt when it comes to bringing together companies and new talent. “There is a lot of demand for what we are doing,” Holiday added.

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