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Here’s why Cornell Tech is so important to building NYC’s startup ecosystem

Here’s why Cornell Tech is so important to building NYC’s startup ecosystem

NEW YORK — David Tisch, founder of e-commerce startup Spring and managing partner at angel fund Box Group, just signed on with Cornell Tech to head up their Startup Studio program. I sat down with him to see what he thinks New York’s tech ecosystem stands to gain from Cornell’s new program.

Cornell’s new tech-oriented masters program is something of a darling in New York. It’s been heavily promoted by the city as New York’s opportunity to build up Silicon Alley. The graduate program currently operates out of Google’s Chelsea offices, though the university has big plans for a shiny new tech campus on Roosevelt Island. It also has massive support from local companies like AOL. In mid-November, the company committed millions of dollars to the program’s new Connected Experience Lab, which will be tasked with developing innovative advertising and video products.

Tisch’s decision to join the program is the latest sign of support from New York’s tech scene. He’ll be in charge of guiding startup studio project ideas for computer science, information systems, and MBA students.

VentureBeat: Why did you decided to get involved with Cornell Tech?

Tisch: I think what’s the most compelling to me is the impact that Cornell can have on the long-term talent ecosystem in New York. I’ve been involved in the tech scene here since about 2005, 2006, so nine years of hearing over and over and over that the biggest challenge in the New York tech ecosystem is talent, talent, talent. To me the effort that is geared at solving that effort over the long period, Cornell Tech is the answer to that.

It’s a commitment to build a true talent pipeline that’s homegrown in New York, that’s super high quality, and to me that’s the exciting part of Cornell. So, getting the opportunity to help develop that pipeline, and to do so by creating an academic approach to enhancing the quality and the startup focus that students are going to have coming out of the program? I just thought was a material way to get involved with what I believe is a vital effort to enhance the city and enhance the broader ecosystem here.

VentureBeat: What will be your role as the head of this Startup Studio?

Tisch: My role is going to be to work with students as they embark on their startup projects, or startups, and to help them figure out how to iterate on them, how to grow them, how to develop them, how to think about them, and providing the right framework for taking the early steps to begin to explore the viability of their company. I think the expectation that Greg [Pass], Dan [Huttenlocher], and I have discussed is that there are going to be some students that want to do this post school, there’s going to be some students that want to join startups post school, and there’s going to be some students that want to join big companies post school. Equipping [them] with a tool set during the academic portion of their lives to go off and be successful in any of those capacities through hands-on startup work while in school is my goal.

VentureBeat: Cornell’s tech program seems to counter the notion that young people with an entrepreneurial spirit should eschew school altogether and join an accelerator or an incubator. Do you think that’s an idea the media has pushed, or does the tech community at large have an aversion to academia? 

Tisch: Look at the precedents set at Stanford, or Carnegie Mellon, et cetera. That’s a limited point of view that I think the media has taken, because it sounds sexy and there’s an undergraduate question around that stuff that’s been popularized, but I don’t think it’s proliferated the way it sounds it has. To me you’re capturing a group of people who are opting in to learn, not people who are trying to do something that is purely commercial. If you look at the origin of a lot of really interesting companies, they weren’t set up to earn money, they set out to solve a problem. And I think that doing so in this setting will really allow for some creative approaches to building solutions that may or may not look commercial at the onset and may or may not turn out to be commercial.

Someone else asked me to compare to other accelerators or other incubators, and I just don’t think it’s in that category. Students aren’t applying to Cornell Tech because they have a startup idea. They’re applying to Cornell Tech to learn and to grow as people, and what’s going to come with that is the opportunity to work on really interesting projects. That’s not what people go to accelerators or incubators for. I think you’re at a very different stage in an idea or a company formation, and so there’s almost zero overlap to me. I think here what you’re doing is creating a foundation for these individuals to go off and do incredible things, and I don’t think that’s the motivation of a non-academic program.

VentureBeat: Do you think an academic base is an important foundation for any startup or entrepreneur?

Tisch: I think everybody has a different flavor. I don’t think that learning entrepreneurship in school is the way that everybody is going to be better at starting companies, but I do think for engineering and masters of engineering, and MBA students, there’s an ability for students to opt into a more entrepreneurial-slanted program to learn in a very hands-on way. I think that the focus of the studio model is to really allow students to try stuff, not just to talk about it. That’s the way that a certain group of people are going to learn better and be better entrepreneurs, because that is the way that it works for them. It doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everyone. If you look at the investment that we make at Box Group, I don’t believe that startups are a science … I think it’s an art. I don’t think you go to school to be a great artist, I think you go to school to learn how to build a foundation to give yourself the ability to become that on your own. That’s what the goal of this program is: to provide a tool set and foundation for the students to be great.

VentureBeat: What’s the vision for how Cornell Tech will influence the tech scene in New York?

Tisch: The goal is that a large number of qualified and quality talent coming out of Cornell will impact the entire ecosystem in many ways. I think there are three obvious ways. Students are either going to finish school and start companies in New York, they’re going to join startups in New York, or they’re going to join existing larger companies in New York. The rise of access to talent that wants to be here, that has spent time here, that is passionate about the ecosystem here will have a net positive effect.

I don’t think the focus on this program is to produce a set number of companies every year. I think it’s that you’re enhancing the broader efforts of the entire ecosystem through company formation and people joining other companies.

VentureBeat: What do you think the timeline is for changing the ecosystem in New York?

Tisch: I think the expectations are as the campus gets built and the program expands, it will have a network effect that gets bigger and bigger and bigger. As more students graduate the program, there are going to be more that are in the ecosystem that have a Cornell tech background, that have an affiliation and affinity towards Cornell, and I think that network effect will just naturally spread.

I don’t think this is a short-term thing. I don’t think that the goal is to be a short-term thing. The second that there are 50 students out there, you’re seeing an impact. The second there are 100 students, there’s a larger impact. You’re going to see an impact immediately, but it’s going to grow in size and effect. That’s why I wanted to get involved now. You can build a foundation for what this program and what this group of students can do in this ecosystem, and I think that’s the exciting part.

VentureBeat: There is so much pull to Silicon Valley; do you think your students will stay?

Tisch: I think the Silicon Valley/New York conversation is the most overrated one out there.

I mean, I love this city, and I think there’s a group of people who love this city and won’t think twice about looking at this as their permanent home. I think there’s another group of people that are gonna wander elsewhere. Whether that elsewhere is Silicon Valley or not, I think that still building the roots here, over time, a large majority of the affinity will accrue back to the city.

VentureBeat: What will the future New York tech scene look like?

Tisch: I think the key to the entire tech scene is that there are transformative companies that are started and built here. That’s companies with a thousand-plus engineers, and product designers and designers and product managers, that are started and built in New York. That’s the hope.

Shutterstock is a great example of one that started here and is based in the Empire State Building and is a public company and it’s a New York-raised entrepreneur. The goal is that you have you these big companies that are New York companies, and they have the ability to have people leave there and start their own companies, so they’re really impactful across the broad ecosystem.

New York figuring out what its Apple, Google, Facebook are is the goal, and I think that the city is setting up nicely to create that.

VentureBeat: How does that compare to where New York’s tech scene is now?

Tisch: I think there’s incredible stuff happening in this city in so many different places: whether it’s the maker community in Brooklyn, whether it’s the ad tech or the fintech communities, whether it’s the design-driven community that’s coming out of the agency world or the engineering community that’s being built from all different angles; or people leaving the Google New York office to start their own companies here. I think all the pieces are in place for continued growth. There are companies, whether it’s Etsy, or Kickstarter, or Buzzfeed, that are big companies that are going to continue to grow, and there are really early ones that have the potential to be a part of that conversation in the future. If you look back six years, the progress here is tremendous, and I think that Cornell Tech is a fundamental piece of where it’s going in the future.

VentureBeat: What is New York’s strength in fostering a tech community? What differentiates it from other places?

Tisch: I think the strength of New York is diversity. The biggest strength that this city’s tech ecosystem will benefit from is that there’s not a monotonous tone to the ecosystem here. Everybody has friends who are not in tech. Everybody has friends working on things that are not in the same specific vertical, even within tech, and I think that diversity of thinking, diversity of background, and diversity of interest … is going to impact the creations that are built here. I think you already see that here. The diversity of the problems and the diversity of the businesses that  people are starting in New York are super interesting. That’s the best thing that will never change about New York.

Tech isn’t the leading industry in New York. There’s a hundred industries that are based here. There are hundreds of industries that are growing here. You get off a subway stop and the communities are different everywhere you go. If you go into Brooklyn, if you go into the Bronx, into Staten Island, into Queens and Manhattan, there are sub-communities of consumers that come with different backgrounds that, to me, create a diversity of thinking, a diversity of life across every angle of that word. It affects the entrepreneurial mindset of founders here. The exposure to different ways of thinking, different ways of seeing things, is going to enhance the way that companies form here.

VentureBeat: Why has it taken a while for talent to come here? What’s the reason for the drought?

Tisch: There’s no deep concentration in one deep area other than, at moments in time, finance. I think that’s the area you saw the brand of New York own for a while, but I think that it’s changing. As the concentration of talent continues to build here, that reverberates broadly across the ecosystem with a very strong network effect. The more companies you have here, the more second-time founders, the more repeat investors, the more first employees — who win because the company they joined won — the better and the stronger the ecosystem gets. I think that it takes time; these things don’t happen overnight.

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