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From Martha Pollack

Proof of Concept: From idea to studio to startup at Cornell Tech

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Eight years ago, when the administration of then–New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged top institutions worldwide to develop an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island, Cornell jumped at the chance. In partnership with the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, we proposed not just a new campus, but a new type of academic program—one designed to intensively engage students and faculty with our rapidly evolving global society.

Cornell Tech held its first classes in 2013, and for the next four and a half years it was housed in space loaned to us by Google. Then, fifteen months ago, we moved to our Roosevelt Island campus—and students and alumni have already compiled an impressive record of entrepreneurial success. As of this past August, more than fifty startups had been formed at Cornell Tech. These new companies—92 percent of which are headquartered in New York City—employ 248 people and have raised more than $43 million in funding.

Three distinctive elements of Cornell Tech’s curriculum contribute to this success. First, there are no disciplinary silos. All master’s students, across seven programs, spend a quarter to a third of their time working in our studio curriculum, where they create products and solve problems—engineering students side by side with business students, side by side with law students and computing and information science students. Second, companies are an integral part of the campus, so startups and large corporations interact as equals with each other and with students, who are guided by faculty with industry and entrepreneurship experience. This environment encourages an entrepreneurial spirit of thoughtful risk-taking.

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Bright Ideas: Students collaborate at an open studio event on the Cornell Tech campus last spring.Jason Koski/UREL

Third, Cornell Tech is defined by a “maker” culture, in which the process of learning to rapidly create digital products and services is a core educational goal. In the Product Studio, master’s degree students develop solutions to problems proposed by companies; in the Startup Studio, they refine their ideas, which sometimes lead to the creation of real-world startups. Along the way, they learn to evaluate ideas; to develop, manage and pitch products; and to hone their leadership and team-building skills. At least once a week, they get to pick the brains of
entrepreneurial thought leaders.

As the Startup Studio progresses, teams who want to pursue their projects after graduation compete for awards of up to $100,000 and co-working space in the Tata Innovation Center on the Cornell Tech campus. This year’s winning teams are hard at work on their projects, which include a text-free, voice-assisted mobile OS solution to help illiterate people worldwide make better use of smartphones, and a digital assistant that connects families caring for elderly relatives to resources that help support them.

Cornell Tech also has a vibrant doctoral program and an innovative offering for new PhDs, the Runway Startup Postdoc Program. As with our master’s programs, these are designed to ensure that students gain academic and technical expertise as well as a business mindset. Within Runway, postdocs work to transition their nascent ideas about deep digital technologies to sustainable businesses in twelve to twenty-four months. One product developed by a Runway alumnus is Nanit, the first smart baby monitor to use computer vision technology to help parents improve their babies’ sleep. Already on the market, Nanit has secured nearly $30 million in outside financing and is expanding to meet growing demand.

Our twenty-first-century land grant campus on Roosevelt Island is creating a new economic engine that will drive New York forward for generations to come. The results coming out of Cornell Tech are already impressive, and the campus’s potential is limitless.

Martha E. Pollack
president@cornell.edu

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