Cornell Tech’s First of its Kind Campus for the Digital Age Starts Countdown to the Future

Approximately one year from now Cornell Tech will be celebrating the opening of its new campus currently under construction on Roosevelt Island.  The opening will conclude years of work following Cornell University and the Israeli Institute of Technology (Technion Institute) winning the City’s Applied Sciences Competition in 2011.

On October 19 Cornell Tech held a news briefing at its temporary quarters in the Google building to announce its 12-month countdown to this much anticipated event.  Founding Dean Daniel Huttenlocher introduced the leadership team involved in the development of the campus and its programs.  On the briefing panel were Chief Entrepreneurial Officer and former Twitter CTO Greg Pass, Director of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute Ron Brachman, Associate Dean of Research Deborah Estrin and Senior Director of Capital Projects Andrew Winters.

“We have not just been building a physical campus from the ground up out at Roosevelt Island.  We actually have been re-thinking the research and the teaching and academic programs at the graduate level,” Huttenlocher said. “As we’re building this new campus, our focus is on developing pioneering leaders and technologies for the digital age.”

All master’s degree programs are being infused with leadership and digital technology, according to Huttenlocher. But, while students are engaged in their master’s degree programs, they also receive real world experience via the various ways Cornell Tech engages with the local New York City community.

The Studio, an applied learning program, which is overseen by Greg Pass is a big part of the campus’ outreach.  Students learn about the struggles of building a new digital product that has real value and impact. In the fall semester student teams work on product challenges presented to them by local large corporations such as Uber and the NY Times, as well as non-profit organizations and startups. In the spring they are tasked with coming up with their own new digital product or startup-company idea. Practitioners from the area having a range of backgrounds are invited to the campus to meet with the groups to give them a “reality check.”

“In just our first three years already 29 companies have been created on campus,” Pass explained. “Remember, in our first semester three years ago there were just seven students. It speaks to the entrepreneurial interest and activity that is on our campus.”

Pass went on to note that 93% of Cornell Tech startups are headquartered in New York City and that makes a “great New York City story”.  This entrepreneurial activity is drawing students from all over the world to pursue their startup ideas.  In addition, the vast majority of the 200 plus alumni are staying in the city after graduation, either starting new companies or taking positions with NYC employers.

Dean Huttenlocher echoed Pass' comments, while also touting the pace at which so much has been accomplished since Cornell Tech took physical space in NYC in 2012 after winning the competition: inaugural students entering the master’s program and the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, the Roosevelt Island ground breaking in 2015, and six active master’s programs in full stride this fall. All leading to next year’s campus opening—a pace that Huttenlocher describes as being unusual for an academic institution.

In his overview of the new campus Senior Director of Capital Projects Andrew Winters described it as the “first of its kind”, having been built from the ground up in the digital age, significantly distinguishing it from pre-existing campuses.  Dean Huttenlocher observed that others are now copying elements of the campus, and with pleasure stated “that makes Cornell Tech a trendsetter.”

Winters considers The Bloomberg Center, the first academic building on campus, to be a departure from traditional academic facilities. Having an open plan with extensive collaboration space, as well as a combination of private work spaces, it mirrors plans from the tech world, not academia. In addition, it is a trendsetter in that it is a “net-zero” building that has all of its energy generated on campus.

The building called the The Bridge” is a co-location space that will house an ecosystem of established tech companies, startups and researchers.  Its design is intended to foster collaboration in new product creation that will lead to the commercializing of technology developed on the campus which in turn will drive growth in NYC.

Cornell Tech is also pioneering the world’s first “passive house” residential building that drastically reduces energy consumption and creates a much healthier living environment at a fraction of the energy cost. The House will be exclusively for faculty, staff and students to promote 24/7 campus activity.

“The campus is a new type of place offering a place to think, but also a place that is intimately connected with the rest of the City, both in mission and design,” summed up Winters.

Along with Dean Huttenlocher, Associate Dean of Research Deborah Estrin may be the only other member on the panel who has fully experienced the transformation that has been underway these past few years. Estrin was the first professor to be hired and then participated in the hiring of the 29 professors that followed. She left her UCLA faculty position to take an inaugural position to be part of this visionary undertaking.

“We are a leading academic research institution, but our professors just don’t stick to the lab and the classroom. Many of them are entrepreneurs themselves,” Estrin said.  “All of us are committed to applied research and to really profound positive impact on society.”

Estrin described how “purpose” research groups have emerged on campus, formed with an “across campus- across discipline flavor” with a focus on artificial intelligence, security and privacy, and human-computer interaction. She found this to be exceptional, not having seen research collaboration form in this way during her long career in academia.

“The depth and quality of the research faculty and their engagement have even exceeded the very high expectations I had when I decided to move across the country and join this venture,” stated Estrin.

Ron Brachman of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute closed the panel by explaining how the Institute brings an important international component to the new campus as a part of Cornell’s outreach commitment. Israel’s reputation as the “Startup Nation”, having a strong entrepreneurial culture, combined with Israel’s strongest campus for creating successful entrepreneurs, made partnering an obvious fit at the time of the competition.  Established as an academic joint venture with its own separate board of directors, the Institute extends the impact of the Cornell Tech campus through its unique autonomy and freedom to experiment. It is more open to challenging barriers between disciplines and institutional boundaries. The latter has made it easier to engage in collaborative research between the New York and Israel based campuses.

Another signature element of the Institute is the Runway Startup Postdoc Program, a combination of an academic postdoc program and an incubator, provides special nurturing for students seeking to launch a venture while in a true postdoc educational environment. Entrants into the program have already conducted deep PhD level research which enables them to bring a well-planned and sophisticated product idea to the program.

By briefing’s end each of the panelists had painted a picture of Cornell Tech’s future: driven by digital technology, led by highly talented people, and embracing the digital age with its “first of a kind” campus. Cornell Tech plans to provide a revolutionary model of graduate education, while contributing a sustaining social and economic impact on the City that it will soon have as a permanent home.

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