The Cornell NYC Tech: an academic model to follow

Maria Teresa Cometto —  February 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

Originally posted on StartupItalia!

«You want to push the limits—to reimagine the technology at the core of how we live, work, play and connect. You want to change the world we’re living in. You are not afraid of the unpredictable and the unformed; you see newness as an exciting challenge to be conquered».

Do you feel you fit in that profile? If so, you can apply to one of the programs at Cornell NYC Tech, the new post-grad school that is being built on Roosevelt Island and that aims to train a new generation of scientists with the animal spirit of entrepreneurs. Right now admissions are open – also to international students – for the Johnson MBA, a three-semester program that combines a summer (the first semester) in Ithaca (upstate New York, where the Cornell University is based) and a New York City experience for the remaining two semesters.

While the new campus is under construction (the opening is planned for 2017), the courses are hosted by Google in its humongous building in Chelsea, Manhattan. I visited the temporary “campus” – a loft on the third floor – and talked with the Dean Daniel Huttenlocher to understand what’s special about this new initiative.

His pitch is that Cornell NYC Tech is the first university founded with the mentality, rhythms and structure of a startup, which wants to break down the barriers between research and business and between scientific disciplines to stimulate innovation and create jobs.

 Actually it’s quite a wealthy startup: the whole project will cost $2 billion in the end, all funded by private individuals. Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg had the idea in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, in order to diversify the city’s economy until then too dependent on Wall Street. The city administration gave the land and $100 million in infrastructure improvements, and selected the winning project: a joint venture between the Ivy League university Cornell and Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology that is famous for being the breeding ground of hundreds of startups listed on NASDAQ.

The “campus” looks like a startup indeed: it’s a single open space and its culture is “open” as well. «We do not have separate faculties, but three multidisciplinary research centers linked to three leading industries in New York: media, health business and real estate», explains Huttenlocher. Every Friday in the open space students attend a practicum: a workshop where they are engaged in some challenge of writing software or meet NYC startup entrepreneurs. The organizer of these events is Greg Pass, a Cornell alumnus and former Chief technology officer at Twitter, now Chief entrepreneurial officer of Cornell NYC Tech. «Greg is the first teacher we recruited with the task of making alive the entrepreneurial spirit on campus – recalls Huttenlocher. – He’s the living proof that professionals and academic researchers have the same weight here». Moreover, all Cornell NYC Tech teachers have had some experience in applying their research to business and some have also founded or worked in startups.

Students are selected not only according to their academic qualifications, but also with an interview that verifies their desire to do business. Part of the curriculum is a sort of apprenticeship in collaboration with companies operating in New York. Each semester Cornell NYC Tech receives proposals from companies for research projects aimed to solve practical problems: teachers select those deemed suitable to the campus and submit them to the students, who “vote” their favorites. The most popular projects then become the “homework” of teams of students, each with a mentor and the means provided by the sponsor company. For example one recent project was commissioned by Qualcomm and involved technologies that help drive more safely, “feeling” the presence of other moving vehicles.

«They are assignments regarding real products and put students immediately into the world of business – stresses Huttenlocher. – From the beginning the companies disclaim if they or the students will keep the intellectual property of the product or if it will be open source. We’d like to redefine the system of technology transfer from university to business: the current one works well for certain industries such as pharmaceuticals, but it is unsuitable to information technology». However this does not mean losing academic freedom, according to the Dean.

«Also in the traditional model, money for academic research comes not only from the government but mainly from private individuals – points out Huttenlocher. – Besides, some of our projects will be very long term, not immediately marketable. The important thing is to understand that today high-tech innovation is accelerated by bringing products to market as quickly as possible and involving clients from the earliest stages of a new idea».

Could Cornell NYC Tech be a model for innovation in Italian universities too?

Maria Teresa Cometto

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