Cornell Tech, Dynamo on the East River, Has Incubated More Than 100 Startups But Can It Engineer Its Own Growth?

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Nanit CEO Anushka Salinas works out of the baby monitor startup’s TriBeCa office, May 15, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Greg David

Nanit makes the best baby monitor, according to the New York Times product evaluation site Wirecutter.

Accretive Health has launched a software system that gives small medical practices the same tech capabilities as larger systems, including using artificial intelligence to organize medical records and prep doctors for the next patient.

Climate Change AI holds conferences to teach people how to use artificial intelligence to work on climate change and gives out grants for academic and development climate change work using AI.

What these three ventures have in common is that they are among the 100 startups that have emerged from Cornell Tech, which stemmed from the effort of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration to spur the development of the tech sector in New York by establishing a world-class computer and engineering graduate school in the city.

Twelve years after its founding, Cornell Tech has raised almost $1 billion and built four major energy efficient buildings on its Roosevelt Island campus while bringing 600 graduate students from around the world to the city and becoming an incubator for startups, late last year passing the milestone of 100 companies launched.

The school says 94% of the startups and the vast majority of students remain in New York City after graduation.

“The activity it has generated makes it as big a success as it was hoped to be and maybe bigger,” said Seth Pinsky, who conceived the idea of launching the school when he was president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Much remains to be done. Cornell Tech needs to raise more money to build out the campus to accommodate an increase in enrollment to 2,000. It needs to almost double the number of tenured faculty to 129 amid intense competition. Most of all, it needs to be better known.

“New York is a tremendous place for higher-education with over a hundred institutions and hundreds of thousands of students.  So at times, it can feel as if we are a relatively small island in a wonderfully diverse sea of students, shouting into the hurricane of activity,” said Dean Greg Morrisett, who admits with some chagrin that the school has just begun marketing efforts to reach new students.

Yet even now the school is almost certainly the single most effective economic development project undertaken by city government in recent decades.

“With the possible exception of two decades of investment in biotech to create a life sciences sector, I can’t think of another policy that has been this successful,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, which tracks economic development policy.

Cornell Tech was conceived in the worrisome days of the financial crisis in 2008. With dealmaking and other economic development work paralyzed by the crisis, Pinsky had lots of time on his hands. He spent it walking around the city and trying to think of ways to bolster the economy and came up with the idea of a graduate school focusing on computer science and technology, which were not top priorities at other local universities.

Mayor Bloomberg embraced the idea although it took several years for the rest of the bureaucracy to get behind the idea. The city launched a competition in 2011 offering five possible sites and $100 million to the winner.

Quickly Stanford and Cornell emerged as the leading candidates, along with a Roosevelt Island site that had once been a hospital. Cornell Tech won with an alliance with the Israeli university Technion and in December of that year Cornell alumnus Charles Feeney pledged $350 million to back the project.

Today, the school offers five one-year master’s programs including three in computer engineering, a Tech MBA and a master’s in law of technology and entrepreneurship. Three other two-year programs emphasize information systems, health, and urban tech. Tuition for masters degrees ranges from $65,000 to $125,000 for the Tech MBA plus living costs.

About half receive scholarship aid which ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 per year.

Two thirds of the students come from abroad, with the largest contingents from China and India. School administrators would like to increase the number of American students.

“My goal is to have no over-representation and we are a little out of whack in some programs and have work to do,” said Morrisett.

Startup Hub

Not surprisingly, the emphasis at Cornell Tech is on artificial intelligence, and that may be the school’s biggest advantage as AI use soars.

“Most universities are struggling because artificial intelligence crosses a lot of boundaries as many emerging disciplines do,” the dean said. “We have had the luxury of bringing together elements from many different academic departments as a relatively new school.”

That’s the approach that brought 23-year-old Joseph Ioffee to Roosevelt Island for the two-year health tech program.

He had studied computer science at Vanderbilt with an emphasis on computational biology research focused on how blood tests could be used to track autism. At Cornell Tech he spends two-thirds of his time in computer science classes and, because of the school’s status as a division of Cornell, one-third of his time at the Cornell-Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences. His goal is to become an expert at AI machine learning and apply it to health care.

“You are surrounded by people who are so entrepreneurial and tech forward,” he said.

The school’s connections to the tech community can lead to an immediate payoff for many students.

After studying computer engineering at Florida State University, Erin Murphy decided she would need a deeper understanding of AI and to find a way into the tech industry. Beyond what she learned on the campus, she used the school’s network to explore job opportunities.

The 22-year-old graduated last week and soon will start a job at Bloomberg LP as a software engineer. She even signed an apartment lease to continue to live on Roosevelt Island. While she wouldn’t disclose her exact salary, Bloomberg had advertised the salary range as $158,000 to $250,000.

“I learned more this year than I have learned in my whole life,” she said. “The experience is so cutting edge.”

AI is the crucial component in its startups as well, beginning with its most successful company, Nanit, whose product is sold to worried parents and grandparents, allowing them to monitor a baby’s sleep from anywhere. But it also collects millions of hours of data on sleep and both conducts its own research and offers it to others to use AI to  study not only baby sleep but other development issues as well.

Founder Assaf Glazer joined the first cohort of students, then housed in a space Google had offered the school at its Chelsea offices. He had graduated from Technion in Israel with expertise in process controls for making silicon wafers. As a new father on what he calls “the night shift,” he came to Cornell Tech to employ process control to look at sleep over an extended period of time.

“I came every morning to the space to meet with my professors,” he remembered. “Building a business is about getting advice and direction. The network and people at Cornell really helped to build the foundation.”

The company has now raised $100 million in venture capital and employs 105 people, said current chief executive Anushka Salinas.

Some 15 years after graduating from Cornell in Ithaca with a degree in economics, Vince Hartman came to Cornell Tech to earn a degree in computer science with an emphasis on health care. He met his co-founders there and was able to form a link to New York Presbyterian Hospital as he worked on creating a way to retrieve patient records and for doctors to efficiently summarize their visits.

He’s raised $1.8 million and just launched a second product that will offer the system to individual physicians for $99 a month.

“I am a big fan of the entrepreneurial system they are building because as a founder you need to connect to potential investors and employees,” he said.

In all the school claims its startups are valued at $695 million, having raised $280 million in venture capital.

‘New York Is Our Drawing Card’

Cornell Tech is one piece of the enormous gains the city’s tech sector has made in the last decade. The most recent in-depth report from the city comptroller’s office puts tech company employment at 250,000, or 50,000 more than Wall Street. Jobs have grown by 150% over the past 15 years, a growth rate surpassed only by San Francisco and more than any other place in the country except Silicon Valley.

Bringing students to New York to create an employee pipeline and producing new companies are not the only way Cornell Tech has played a role in that growth.

Both New York University and Columbia have invested heavily in engineering programs, clearly in response to Cornell Tech, says Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future.

NYU had abandoned engineering in 1973 when it closed its Bronx Heights Campus. In 2014 it merged with Polytech in Brooklyn and has since greatly expanded its campus there.

Morrisett was a key player in the newly enacted Empire AI, in which the state will invest $275 million over 10 years to create a high-performance computer network for AI research at seven campuses in the state. Cornell Tech will be one of its most important users.

One of the biggest impacts came with its founding.

Pinsky was surprised by the intense interest in the competition when it was launched in 2011. It was a sign of New York’s growing role in tech, and one that reverberated.

“When we launched the competition, we didn’t appreciate the publicity it would generate and the signal it would send to the marketplace,” he said. “It was a turning point for people’s understanding of tech in New York and a lot of the momentum we saw was in part a result of that new image.”

It won’t be easy for the school to meet its goals of 2,000 students, 129 faculty and doubling the number of startups to about 20 a year while winning more visibility in both the academic and tech worlds.

For one, the school is not well known– a problem since one of the original Bloomberg objectives was a school that would be mentioned in the same breath as Stanford or MIT.

Ioffee, for example, knew nothing about Cornell Tech when he was searching for graduate schools. Six days before the application deadline a friend sent him a link and said this looked like something he should consider. A few hectic days later, his application was completed.

“They do a poor job advertising their connections to business,” Ioffee added.

Bowles did not know the school had produced 100 startups until it was pointed out by THE CITY.

Building the faculty will be particularly difficult since professors in those fields are highly sought after not only by other universities but by tech companies as well. Because Cornell Tech is a school within Cornell, appointments have to be approved In Ithaca and on Roosevelt Island, and it takes an average of 18 months to get someone in place.

Like every other CEO here, Morrisett’s big problem is the cost of living in New York. “New York is our drawing card,” he said, “and we hear all the time that New York is too costly.”

He is willing to provide housing subsidies as long as the faculty member lives on Roosevelt Island or elsewhere in the city, helping them to spend more time on campus.

Ties to the city’s tech community will need to be expanded as well.

“There are a number of folks in the tech community who have taken advantage of all the energy on Roosevelt Island but there is a lot more we can do,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of the city’s tech trade group Tech:NYC.

Those hurdles are substantial but so are the prospects for success especially if AI is as transformative as its advocates claim it will be.

“I don’t think AI is a fleeting thing and we have built a faculty focused on AI related questions,” Morrisett said.

This story was published by THE CITY on May 20, 2024.



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