‘Start-Up Nation’ Ethos Infuses Cornell Tech’s New Digs


When, in 2010, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was choosing a proposal for the technology-focused university he hoped would make Silicon Alley competitive with Silicon Valley, he was looking to import not just great minds, but also a particular mindset.

He found it in Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which, in a joint proposal with Cornell University, beat out more than a dozen other schools to land the project by offering to bring Israel’s ethos of collaboration and innovation that prompted writers Dan Senor and Saul Singer to dub the country (and their best-selling book) the “Start-up Nation.”

At the ribbon-cutting at Cornell Tech’s glittering Roosevelt Island campus last week, signs of this start-up culture were everywhere, from the lack of faculty offices and interdisciplinary “studio” classes designed to encourage cross-departmental collaboration to “the Bridge,” the open-plan building where established businesses, start-ups and graduate programs grow together by working side-by-side.

According to school officials and students, the Israeli influence is also felt in personal interactions: There’s a certain level of chutzpah needed for a successful start-up, where students don’t hesitate to challenge professors and postdocs are willing to take long-shot risks that their technical innovations can be successfully turned into marketable products.

“Israel is a successful start-up story of founding a country with very limited resources in a survival-mode setting,” said Assaf Glazer, an Israeli who came to Cornell Tech to study at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute’s postdoc “Runway” program, which helps Ph.D.s. develop and launch start-ups.

Glazer launched Nanit, a baby monitor that tracks babies’ sleep through visual data, giving parents not only a minute-by-minute account of whether the baby is asleep or awake but also longer-range Fitbit-style reports that can help parents make better-informed decisions around such fraught issues as sleep training and nap enforcement.

Glazer, who spoke to The Jewish Week via email, said he was drawn to the fact that the Institute, both literally and figuratively, sat “on the boundaries between the academic and practical worlds.”

“From the get go, Jacobs was mission-driven to develop a new approach of commercializing science, despite all risks,” he wrote.

On campus last week, Technion President Peretz Lavie told the standing-room-only crowd of about 500 that the new school brings “a revolutionary model for graduate-level technological education, removing traditional barriers between disciplines.”

The value placed on applied sciences, he said, is “part of the DNA of the ‘start-up nation,’” he said, and the “colocation” of researchers and business leaders “will allow us to fuse academia and industry under the same roof, something you will also find at our home campus in Haifa,” he said.

“In our experience,” he added, putting academic researchers and businesses in close proximity “fosters innovation and world-class research and start-ups for economic growth and the public good.”

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack also praised the Israeli ethos of collaboration and risk-taking that Technion has brought to the project.

“There are no disciplinary silos here. Every single one of our masters students spends a third of their time working in our studio curriculum, creating products and solving problems: engineering students with business students with law students with computing and information science students. The best way to solve our biggest challenges is to gather a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds and disciplines. …

“Here at Cornell Tech, academia and industry are linked together … and the research will be put to use immediately and in the real world,” she said, noting the residence of Citigroup, the tech and investment firm Two Sigma and the chocolate company Ferrero in the aptly named “Bridge” tower, which houses established companies, academic research and budding start-ups side-by-side in an open floor plan and central staircase. “Companies,” she said,  “are a permanent part of this campus, ensuring collaboration that accelerates this kind of innovation,” which, she said, is the “first of its kind to house companies in the center of a university campus.”

The coursework is also unique in that it puts just as much focus on the practical side of launching a start-up as on development of the technology.

Another innovation that Technion brought to Roosevelt Island was an emphasis on bringing in a different type of professor, said Paul Feigin, Technion Vice President for Special Projects.

“We treated it [Cornell Tech] as a start-up,” he said in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week. Feigin was on his way back to China, where Technion is setting up its second offshore campus. “Cornell’s attitude was: ‘We have a new institute, we need to bring top professors to get it going.’ We said: ‘We also need young people, professors at the assistant and associate professor level.’ … We wanted people who had an interest in entrepreneurship.”

Technion also brought its more extensive focus on “technology transfer from academia to industry,” that is, turning research into commercial products, he said.

Finally, he said, Israel’s history of kibbutzim has created a more egalitarian mindset, an ethos that helps start-ups thrive. “In a start-up company, it’s not all top-down,” he said. “The fact that workers can challenge their bosses, they expect their workers to challenge them,” he said, leads to stronger ideas and innovation.

Ron Brachman, director of Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, which runs the Runway Startup Postdoc Program, praised Technion’s emphasis on practical education and collaboration.

In the “studio” classes, students work together to develop real products. “They work in a collaborative way rather than sitting at desks writing codes,” he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “Studio helps teach them in a very hands-on way.”

And the lack of faculty offices? That’s an innovation developed on Roosevelt Island – even Technion hasn’t gone so far as to part a professor from her office. “It’s in the spirit of looking for many more opportunities for collaboration. The basic ethic behind the building is to create a space that’s open and collaborative,” said Brachman, explaining that instead of faculty being isolated in their offices, they “can see people from a long distance away,” prompting professors to consult with each other either in the open-plan office or in one of the many “huddle rooms.”

While enticing faculty to join the pioneering university in the heart of New York City wasn’t difficult, convincing them to give up their offices might not be so easy, Brachman said.

“I think at first,” he said, “it’s going to take some adjustment.”