Israel’s Start-Up Island Taking Shape

A rendering of the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Courtesy of Technion

On the south side of Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, a massive construction project is taking shape. The shells of three towering buildings are rising amid a forest of building cranes, muddy roads and a mound of dug-up dirt.

This is the future of the Jacobs Institute, part of the Cornell Tech campus that is being built on the mostly residential island.

(Its official name is the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, named for the California philanthropists, Cornell graduates and longtime Technion supporters, who gave the lead $133 million gift.)

The joint academic program under the auspices of Cornell University and Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology marks the first time an international university has granted an accredited degree on U.S. soil.

The initial part of the Roosevelt Island site — the three buildings now under construction — “is on schedule” to open at the start of the 2017-18 academic year, said Daniel Huttenlocher, Cornell Tech’s founding dean. The building of the entire state-of-the-art, environmentally green and energy-efficient campus will take 25 years.

Think Silicon Island.

At Cornell University’s recent commencement exercises in Ithaca, a dozen Jacobs Institute graduates received their diplomas, dual master of applied sciences degrees, from Cornell and the Technion. They are the first graduates of the Institute, which has been based — until the Cornell Tech campus opens on Roosevelt Island — at the Google headquarters in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Two weeks before that, they were honored at a celebration in Bryant Park hosted by the American Technion Society.

The graduates are from six countries. Most have already formed their own entrepreneurial high-tech businesses or gone to work for established, prestigious firms in their specialized areas, according to the Institute.

The Institute has used Israel’s lauded Start-Up Nation ethos, which has earned the nation a reputation as an innovative leader in applying its high-tech expertise to the business world, to start operating before the Roosevelt Island campus opens its doors next year, said Adam Schwartz, the Institute’s Israeli-born director. “It’s a very Israeli approach.”

Hence, the classes that began two years ago, and the Institute has already launched a program for Postdoctoral Innovation Fellows. Earlier this spring it announced an “Immersive Recommendations” research technology, developed at the Institute’s Connected Experiences Lab, which, according to Cornell, “translates personal digital traces from one platform recommendation to another” — such as Netflix and Twitter.

At a time that the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement finds growing international support, the establishment of such a program with highly visible Israeli ties, despite initial opposition from pro-Palestinian advocates here and in Ithaca, is a strike against anti-Israel forces; it is likely to create “ambassadors” for Israel through students’ and faculty members’ “personal connections” with successful Israelis, Schwartz said.

“Everyone will be an ambassador opposing BDS.”

He called the Institute “one of the largest [examples of] cooperation between a university in the United States and one outside of the United States.”

The Institute already employs seven faculty members; that number, and the number of students, will rise when the Institute moves to Roosevelt Island next year. But Schwartz was reluctant to offer specific figures about the projected size of the Institute, or the long-range goal of its fundraising campaign.

The Institute’s emphasis will be in three areas:

n Connective Media, which will help New York City bridge the gap between technology and its uses in such areas as advertising, entertainment, finance and retail;

n Healthier Life, which will promote high-tech research to reduce health care costs and improve the quality of health care services; and

n Built Environment, which will urge faculty and students in such areas as architecture, energy and transportation “to help realize the promise of a more sustainable environment.”

“This is a completely new type of degree program,” Schwartz said. Many of the prospective students who have applied for admission to the Institute are not primarily attracted by “a specific degree,” but by the Israeli-style “chutzpah” that has fueled the Start-Up Nation philosophy.

Institute students traveled to Israel earlier this year for two weeks of meetings with entrepreneurs.

The Institute’s faculty members are employed by Cornell; Technion partners on the academic side, interviewing applicants and designing curriculum. Technion, which has advertised for “individuals [with] exceptional academic records and demonstrated engagement and impact outside the academic world,” is, as a foreign public institution, not allowed to invest in capital projects on the new campus or to take an ownership stake in physical facilities.

The Institute was formed as part of an applied sciences and technology campus envisioned by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg; that campus was, in turn, part of an intensive Applied Sciences NYC initiative, to increase entrepreneurship and create jobs in New York City, and to leverage the city’s large number of high-tech firms.

New York donated the land for the 11-acre campus; Bloomberg gave $100 million.

“This is a very different campus,” Schwartz said — one that will break standard academic boundaries and encourage experimentation.

Cornell Tech will be open for master’s level, doctoral and post-doctoral students. It has begun four master’s programs and will begin two more later this year; eventually, it will offer eight degrees.

The Institute is designed as a “bridgehead” for Israeli companies to better establish themselves in the U.S., and as a way for Israeli expatriates in this country to make “half-aliyah” by working under Israeli auspices.

A major feature of the Institute is its interdisciplinary approach, Schwartz said.

“The Institute is a place for experimentation on campus, where traditional institutional boundaries disappear,” a mission statement issued by Cornell states. “That leads to academic programs focused on domains of economic need, or ‘hubs,’ instead of disciplines; a postdoctoral program aimed at turning research into startup companies; and the introduction of commercial models for the monetization of intellectual property to drive university innovation.”

The Institute will sponsor business competitions, provide legal support for startups, form research partnerships with extant companies, sponsor entrepreneurs-in-residence, and offer pre-seed financing for promising research projects.

Huttenlocher declined to comment on what type of security the Institute, because of its Israeli connection, will have. “In New York City, security is a concern all over the place.”