New York’s Newest Idea Incubator: Cornell-NYC Tech

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 21st September 2012

A longtime myth may soon be discredited. For more than 20 years, conventional wisdom had it that the success of Silicon Valley would never be duplicated. But Cornell University earlier this year won a bid to build a $2-billion graduate school on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

The Ivy League school partnered with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, an Israeli-based public research university, to create the Cornell-NYC Tech campus. This helps fulfill a growing vision of generating a startup boom in Gotham.

The Cornell-NYC Tech project may provide a view into the future where large and complex technical infrastructure provides the blueprints for successful ecosystems of innovation. The development of similar mega-tech centers are underway or in the planning stages in countries such as China, India and Germany.

The joint project is part of New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious efforts to create new businesses in New York and to develop the city’s five boroughs as the technical business capital of the world. The project could be a large as two million square feet on Roosevelt Island, across the East River from Manhattan.

It promises to give other hubs of entrepreneurial science around the world “a run for their money,” said Bloomberg. “It really is a game changer. In fact, the economic impact will be even greater than we originally thought. It will generate more than $23 billion in economic activity over the next three decades as well as $1.4 billion in tax revenues.”

Cornell-Technion’s plans include a high-tech research centre dedicated to attracting brilliant young minds, establishing fresh businesses and powering New York’s post-industrial intellectual economy, beginning in 2017.

For all that to happen, the Roosevelt Island centre will need to be an exciting, urban place and resounding of innovation. To support the right vibe, research towers and sloping lab buildings are oriented for the most efficient capture of solar energy in the proposal for a new Engineering campus. Even more investment will be necessary to connect Roosevelt with Manhattan, but as with most super-initiatives, Cornell-NYC Tech initially will be a cost centre. Profits will not roll in immediately.

“This is a story of connectivity between people and their ideas, between researchers and business people and between students and their dreams,” Cornell President David Skorton said.

New York has yet to establish a reputation in IT innovation in the way that Silicon Valley has but New York possesses some attributes that are vital to rapid growth.

“You’ve got to understand how big we are,” said Bloomberg, noting that “New York City has more undergraduate and graduate college students than Boston has people.”

Henry Etzkowitz, senior researcher at Stanford’s H-STAR Institute, coined the term “entrepreneurial university” to characterize the role universities can play to foster startups in a way that most effectively leverages local advantages. CornellNYC’s Tech graduate curriculum is intended to draw on talent and innovation in the many fields where New York City is already a dominant player, such as in global finance, media, design and fashion.

“This is the strength of New York,” he said. “It has all of these resources but many of them isolated from each other.” Cornell-NYC’s Tech will bring them together under one massive roof.

Etzkowitz calls for targeted investments as well, particularly in creating regional partnerships to create efficiencies and other institutions focused on economic development but cautions that “real success demands patience; economies grow slowly and payoffs come slowly. The powerful impulse to keep score on public spending needs to be weighed against the requirements for investments with uncertainty built into the payoffs.”

Will Cornell-NYC Tech become the model for leading entrepreneurial ecosystems? Even considering New York’s size advantage, or perhaps because of it, at a time of fiscal constraint and diminished expectations, this uncertainty looms largest.

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Filed under Entrepreneurship, Innovation strategy, Universities

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