Loading icon

Silicon City

News & Features | May 6, 2013

With its new graduate school of applied sciences, Cornell University thinks it has it has a way to create a Silicon Valley of the East Coast: a hub of technology, business, and innovation right in New York City.

Though the claim seems dubious, history has shown that a good graduate school can change the landscape of an area. The presence of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has encouraged an environment of technological innovation around Boston, and specifically Route 128. Similarly, Stanford and UC Berkley feed ideas and personnel directly into Silicon Valley, the center of the country’s tech industry, where Apple, Facebook, Xerox, Microsoft, Google, Intel, eBay call home. These areas are hotbeds of innovation and present a huge boon to their local economies.

This sort of growth is what Mayor Bloomberg had in mind when he held a contest to create a new science graduate school in New York. New York already has one of the fastest-growing tech scenes in the country—a recent study called New
Tech City found that 486 technology companies have been founded in the city since 2007. Notable examples are Tumblr, Gilt Groupe, Foursquare, and Fab, all founded in Manhattan.

However, the city currently lacks the bandwidth needed to support a tech industry on the scale of Silicon Valley. In addition, many tech companies complain the city lacks the necessary base of qualified engineers. To address this lack of human capital, the city of New York offered a $133 million grant and land on Roosevelt Island to whoever could come up with the best technology-focused graduate school for the area. With its reputation for churning out start-ups and CEOs, Stanford seemed well poised to win the grant. Instead, Cornell pulled ahead, bolstered by $350 million in private funding and a partnership with a distinguished foreign university, Technion.

Based in Haifa, Israel, TechnionIsrael Institute of Technology is globally renowned for its technology curriculum. Of its graduates, 25% have started a business and 25% are vice presidents or CEOs of companies. Technion is credited with changing the area’s landscape, and Israel as a nation. Graduates of the school report that every technological venture in
the country—from highways to missile technologies—has at least one Technion grad on staff. Technion is to Haifa what
Stanford is to Silicon Valley. With this new endeavor in New York City, Cornell aims to mimic Technion’s success.

Classes started at Cornell’s new graduate school of applied sciences this past January with a matriculating class of seven students. The university boasts a unique and specialized curriculum designed to help students achieve financial success, requiring students to take traditional tech courses as well as business courses. Instead of departments, the school has flexible, interdisciplinary “hubs” of study, which focus on integrating business and design with technology. Every semester, the school matches each student with a mentor from the private sector who will oversee the design and creation of new products. To facilitate this process, there is a patent office directly on campus—a perk found at no other school.

The Cornell school also has practicums every week with entrepreneurs and business people from New York’s tech sector. In turn, these professionals can invite teams of students to work for their companies on needed projects. The university allows students to count the work as a “master’s project.” The goal of these practices is to fully integrate education and business. Stanford has made over $1 billion in “technology transfer”—gaining revenue and royalties for the private sector’s use of ideas and innovations generated at the university. This is one of the goals of the Cornell program. The founders of the tech school call it an “educational start-up,” and hope to create an even more fluid exchange between academia and private companies.

Henry Mayer, a Stanford graduate who worked at a startup called Homestead in the Silicon Valley area, is skeptical of New York’s ability to mirror Silicon Valley’s tech success. Mayer says that he has stayed in the Stanford area, even after Intuit bought out Homestead, in order to work alongside the people who are best at they do. He took a substantial pay cut in moving to his current job at startup Curious.com, but he was so enthused about the personnel and the mission of the company that he was convinced. This is not uncommon for a programmer in Silicon Valley; programmers often switch from job to job in search of the next big project.

It is this culture, Mayer posits, that makes Silicon Valley unique: “In New York, for a variety of reasons it’s harder to get people to work for less, which I think is necessary in these small startup situations,” he explains. “It’s a cultural question… In Silicon Valley people aren’t that interested in ascending a ladder, getting promotions, and such. That just doesn’t exist here because organizations aren’t hierarchical like that. In Silicon Valley, people work closely in small teams. I think that fosters a work ethic that looks at not what your employers want, but what your team needs.”

That being said, Mayer acknowledges the importance of training and educating qualified tech professionals. In his job at Homestead, Mayer was often tasked with hiring engineers, and he discusses the challenge of finding qualified people, even in the famed Silicon Valley area, due to high demand for talented programmers.

So maybe a prestigious school that focuses on creating knowledgeable, business-savvy graduates is the key to fostering New York’s technological renaissance. But Mayer suggests that there are other cultural factors at play emphasizing the need to replicate Silicon Valley’s work ethic. “If I were planning this out,” he says, “I would
try to seed the employment pool and engineering pool with people who already have that Silicon Valley culture of working really hard on the most interesting projects regardless of the money. I think it’s easy to slip into that if it already exists. I don’t know how you start it.”