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Cornell Tech: A nesting ground for new technologies

Cornell Tech’s dean and vice provost, Daniel Huttenlocher, sits on Amazon’s board of directors, and Amazon executives visited the campus as part of the city’s efforts to woo the company.
By Winnie Hu

NEW YORK: In the rush to get to class, Eliza Harkins used to forget the things she needed most: notebooks, eyeglasses, phone charger and lunch.

So Harkins teamed up with a classmate, Sarah Le Cam, to do something about it. They came up with a device that slips inside a bag, backpack or suitcase and keeps track of items using radio-frequency identification technology. If a wallet is not returned to the bag, the device sends a cellphone alert. If the cellphone is missing, the device beeps.

The women are part of a new generation of technology whizzes emerging from Cornell Tech, a graduate school on Roosevelt Island in the East River that started with just seven students in 2013. Since then, Cornell Tech has become one of the most visible symbols of New York City’s booming technology sector — and a major selling point in the bid to persuade Amazon to build a headquarters in Queens.

Cornell Tech’s dean and vice provost, Daniel Huttenlocher, sits on Amazon’s board of directors, and Amazon executives visited the campus as part of the city’s efforts to woo the company. Ferries provide direct service between the Cornell campus and Long Island City, Queens, where the company will build the headquarters.

The school’s graduates and researchers have parlayed their ideas, skills and ambition into more than 50 startup companies that have raised a total of $60 million from investors and created about 200 jobs. One startup, Nanit, sells a smart baby monitor online and in stores, while three others have been acquired by companies, including one by Adobe.

About 600 of the school’s graduates — including 360 who remain in the city — have been hired by Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft and other technology companies.

“It really sends a message to the broader tech industry and also the whole world that New York City is serious about tech,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, a nonprofit industry group.

Citywide, the technology industry employs more than 320,000 people, according to Tech:NYC. Many work in what Samuels calls an expanding “ecosystem” of more than 7,000 small startup companies.

Cornell Tech is rooted in a 2010 competition among universities to open an engineering-and-science center on city-owned land. It was part of efforts by Michael Bloomberg, then the mayor, to diversify the city’s economic base, which had traditionally relied on Wall Street and other finance jobs.

Cornell University and its partner, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, won $100 million and a spot on Roosevelt Island.

As the school has flourished, it has drawn criticism from some Cornell students, faculty members and others over its relationship with Technion. Some Roosevelt Island residents have also complained about the continuing campus construction, while others said Cornell Tech had not paid enough to support local neighborhood services, such as street cleaning and landscaping.

“They’re a very prestigious institution that is free-riding off the backs of a working population to function in an environment that they really are not adequately paying for,” said Joyce Short, a writer and longtime resident.

All the money and attention showered on Cornell Tech has, at times, overshadowed other schools. New York University, which also took part in the 2010 competition, is creating a $380 million tech hub for emerging media, technology and the arts in the former headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in downtown Brooklyn. Across the street, its Tandon School of Engineering runs several incubators for startups.

Josh Hartmann, a former chief technology officer for Travelocity and Amplify who now teaches at Cornell Tech, said technology-focused schools are an integral part of what he called a “virtuous cycle” that drives the city’s tech industry. The schools attract faculty members and support research, both of which draw more students. The students increase and diversify the talent pool, which in turn brings more companies.

Cornell Tech’s 340 students are enrolled in seven programs, from electrical and computer engineering to law, technology and entrepreneurship. By 2037, it is expected to have at least 1,800 students. It started in borrowed space at the Google building in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and moved last year to the first three buildings on its new campus.

On a recent evening, students were huddled together in “the collaboratory” — Cornell Tech’s version of a library with tables and smart boards. Downstairs, the school’s “studio_code:” displayed seven principles for innovation, including “Build Things That Matter” and “Don’t Be a Jerk.”

Every student is assigned to a team that works with more than 50 companies, including Amazon and Samsung, on real-life problems that begin with, “How might we ...” Huttenlocher said that part of the challenge is learning to work together across different backgrounds, interests and programs.

In the spring, students team up on their own to develop startups and then present them to parents, technology leaders and investors. In May, four teams were chosen from dozens of entrants. Each team received a $100,000 award, including office space, to pursue its startup.

Harkins, 27, said their device — called a Kipit — resonated with anyone who has ever forgotten a passport and missed a flight, or failed to pack a clean baby diaper. “It’s stress in the day and it really shouldn’t exist, it’s so trivial,” she said. “There wasn’t anything out there that really helped.”

Le Cam, 24, who studied computer science, wrote the app for the device, which keeps track of every item marked by a chip-implanted sticker. The prototype started out shaped like an egg, but testers gave that a thumbs down because it would not fit in small bags. It was flattened, and took on a pocket shape.

Another team is building a website to help people take care of older relatives by covering legal and financial planning, in-home care safety and timesaving services, such as meal deliveries. “I did not expect to start my own company,” said Darya Moldavskaya, 28, a co-founder of ReverCare.

But Cornell Tech’s entrepreneurial culture is contagious, she said. “You’re in an environment where everyone is thinking about it,” Moldavskaya said.

A separate program within Cornell Tech, the Jacobs Runway Startup Postdoctoral Program, offers funding, offices and training for academic researchers for up to three years — far longer than most incubators — to develop more complex technology. Sophie Zaaijer, 36, is working on a startup, FIND Genomics, that provides software that compares DNA evidence from crime scenes to databases and registries for on-site identification within minutes.

Neel Madhukar is a co-founder of a startup, OneThree Biotech, that uses artificial intelligence software to analyze biological, chemical and clinical data to identify new drugs to treat diseases. Madhukar, 27, who has a doctorate in computational biology and medicine, said he had learned how to write a business plan, pitch to investors and hire employees.

Cornell Tech’s 30 faculty members include Deborah Estrin, an associate dean and director of the health technology program, who this year received a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, known as a genius grant. Daniel D. Lee was hired away from the University of Pennsylvania with a joint appointment as professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell Tech and executive vice president for Samsung Research.

The school’s operating budget is $50 million annually, covered partly through student tuition, which starts at $54,584 a year and increases to $102,652 for a master’s in business administration. The school has also raised $815 million in private donations, including $350 million from Atlantic Philanthropies, whose founder is a Cornell graduate, and $100 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The school’s technology lessons have spilled over to the neighborhood. Cornell Tech has supported computer science instruction at the public elementary and middle school. Its students have taught classes at a senior center on protecting against online fraud and created a webpage featuring open spaces on the island for the gardening club.

Jay Jacobson, 82, a retired lawyer who lives on Roosevelt Island, recently worked with Cornell Tech students to solve a daily problem for older people: how to carry a shopping bag when holding onto a walker? They came up with a 3D-printed hinge to attach to a walker.

“I’m so glad I’m part of their community,” Jacobson said. “It’s just a delight to have them.”

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