New York City’s ambitions to challenge Silicon Valley as a technology center are taking root on a narrow isle in the East River, where Cornell University is building a $2 billion campus and startup incubator.
Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island will be home to a new engineering and applied science graduate school, part of a bet that the next Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) could be born in the Big Apple. West Coast companies are already helping lay the groundwork, with Google Inc. (GOOG:US) donating office space to the project and Facebook Inc. (FB:US) hosting a “hackathon” to build buzz with all-night programming binges.
New York has an uphill fight in trying to draw startups and engineers away from the San Francisco Bay area -- home to Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter Inc. Silicon Valley attracted almost six times more venture-capital investment dollars than New York in the second quarter, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP study. Still, the city has an edge in giving entrepreneurs access to the worlds of finance, fashion, advertising and retail, making New York fertile ground for startups that fill the needs of those industries.
“There is more interest in New York as a potential tech center than ever before,” said Greg Pass, a former Twitter executive who now works for the new Cornell campus. “As the world becomes more technological, the role of engineers will be become more substantial.”
The graduate school, known as CornellNYC tech, is part of a broader push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make the city a global technology leader. In December, Cornell and the Technion- Israel Institute for Technology beat out six competing bids to build the campus, including one from Stanford University. A $350 million donation from Cornell graduate Charles Feeney helped seal the university’s victory.
The city is donating space on Roosevelt Island and as much as $100 million for infrastructure improvements. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
The project is meant to bolster job creation in the city and generate 600 spinoff companies and $23 billion in economic activity over the next three decades. Until the Roosevelt Island campus opens in 2017, it will run in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, in space leased rent-free from Google.
The campus will offer pilot courses this year and begin conducting master’s classes in the latter part of 2013. Key to the effort is enlisting technology companies, which will give students a glimpse into their operations, Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the campus, said in an interview. Facebook, Google, EBay Inc. (EBAY:US), Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN:US), Groupon Inc. (GRPN:US), Juniper Networks Inc. (JNPR:US), Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD:US) and Twitter said they intend to collaborate with the campus.
“You can almost name a company, and they’re very excited,” Huttenlocher said.
While New York trails the Valley in startup funding, it’s closing the gap. The number of venture deals in the city grew by almost a third between 2007 to 2011, while falling 10 percent in Silicon Valley, according to the Center for an Urban Future. The city now has more than 1,000 technology startups, and the number of so-called tech accelerators has grown from zero to at least 12 since 2009, making it easier for budding companies to find investors and form business models.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, EBay, Yelp Inc. (YELP:US) and LinkedIn Corp. (LNKD:US) have set up offices in the city. From 2005 to 2010, New York’s tech workforce grew 10 times faster than total city employment, according to the Center for an Urban Future.
The Cornell campus aims to almost double the number of engineering graduate students in “leading programs” in the city, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp. The graduate engineering or applied science schools at Columbia University, City University in New York and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University had a total of about 2,800 students as of 2011, the mayor’s office said.
“It inevitably develops the likelihood that we will have developed better tech talent in the city,” said Alfred Spector, vice president of engineering at Google, which may fund CornellNYC faculty posts.
To maintain closer ties to the technology industry, CornellNYC plans to focus research on real problems that companies are trying to solve. That’s a shift from a tradition in which academia sets the agenda, Huttenlocher said.
“We’re working on a new model,” he said. “We often think about education happening first and entrepreneurship happening second. We are trying to intertwine those at the same time.”
Companies will have a place on the campus as resident entrepreneurs and guest lecturers. A mentorship program will pair each student with an industry mentor. And businesses are already picturing CornellNYC as a recruitment hotbed.
Facebook lured 80 students to its Madison Avenue offices on July 21 for a 24-hour hackathon, an event organized with CornellNYC. In between bean-toss and mini-basketball games, students worked together in small groups to code and solve problems of their choice, huddled in an office with exposed plywood and pipes. Scooters and squirt guns were scattered around the room.
Cornell is one of the top schools from which Facebook recruits, said Jessica Traynor, academic-relations manager at the social-networking company. Facebook will probably host Cornell professors and students as presenters at its offices, and its staff may give lectures or teach at the campus, said Traynor, who helped Cornell on its bid for the project before joining the company.
“Faculty are really interested in our scale, with 900 million-plus users,” Traynor said. Students could work with the company on topics such as systems engineering and human-computer interface, she said.
Facebook will compete for candidates with companies such as Groupon, which is including Cornell’s Ithaca and New York campuses on its recruiting list for the first time this year.
Corey Kaminsky, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Cornell who plans to major in chemistry, said she wants to attend the New York campus for graduate studies and eventually start her career in the city.
“I want to go into biotech,” said Kaminsky, who grew up in New York. “I would be thrilled to go back to being in a big city where new technology will come out.”
Cornell hired Pass, Twitter’s former technology chief, as its founding entrepreneurial officer. He oversees partnerships with industry and ensures that business-startup lessons are integrated into the curriculum and campus culture.
Pass’s own experience comes from the intersection of academia and business. A patent he had produced as a Cornell undergraduate formed the foundation of a company called ToFish, which produced an image-search product. It was acquired by America Online Inc. in 2000. At Twitter, Pass was responsible for hiring hundreds of engineers, Huttenlocher said.
“What Greg brings can certainly be very rare on a university campus,” Huttenlocher said. “He is someone who is a very successful serial entrepreneur. He is going to help us start programs that will bring this academic culture together with the culture of commercial success.”
CornellNYC’s first faculty hire shows its ambition to compete with the West Coast for talent. Deborah Estrin comes to the campus from University of California at Los Angeles, where she is a computer-science professor and founding director of its Center for Embedded Networked Sensing.
Estrin will teach courses such as Internet architecture starting in January. Her research focuses on how mobile and wireless systems can be used to collect and analyze data.
“We plan to connect to the overall ecosystem of companies around the campus,” Estrin said. “Los Angeles and California are a very special place, but I don’t see it as leaving behind the heart of tech.”
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