Friday, December 30, 2011

NYC To Be #1 in Tech? The Cornell-Technion Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island

Model of Planned 2 mil. sf Cornell-Technion Campus
The December 19 announcement of the winning university bid to create a high-tech campus in New York was stunning. It was preceded by mystery and secrecy.

When he was elected, Mayor Bloomberg was expected by many to be a leader in bringing technology to New York City. In 2011, in his third term, he has fulfilled this expectation.

Part of his plan was an RFP for universities to bid on using city land to build a high-tech campus. In May the Mayor also provided a roadmap for NYC to become "the leading digital city".

The Offer, the Sites and the Candidates

The Mayor offered $100 million of NYC money toward university use of underutilized NYC land along with the land itself. The three main candidate sites were Governor's Island, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Roosevelt Island. The campus was conceived of as the "Stanford of the East", and the smart money was on Stanford winning the RFP. After all, Silicon Valley has long been #1 in venture capital investments in technology, evidence of its long expertise in spinning off high-tech companies from centers of excellence in a university environment.   

MIT was also seen as a possible candidate. The Route 128 area in Boston followed the same track as Stanford and was widely viewed as #2 in tech spinoffs. An MIT professor visiting New York City 15 years ago told me that New York City would never catch up to Boston in the tech VC arena because New York City "doesn't have the entrepreneurial spirit".

Well, guess what. The first surprise of 2011 was that the VC people were reporting that tech investments in NYC were exceeding tech investments in Boston. New York was now #2 only to the Bay Area. For whatever reason, MIT did not submit a bid.

Stanford seemed to be putting a huge amount effort into its proposal, but then it suddenly withdrew. Was this a sign that the project was just too ambitious? Or was too tied to real estate? Was this exciting idea going to be still-born?

Cornell, with its existing nexus to New York City (the Cornell-Weill Medical Center, the Cornell Club, the Cornell Institute for Labor Relations), was expected to join Stanford. But Cornell had its own idea and reached out to The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in a series of secret meetings. Technion had the experience with spinning off companies that Cornell lacked.

Politicking meanwhile continued over the various sites. Roosevelt Island is in Rep. Carolyn Maloney's district and on October 19 she held a press conference to argue the case for this being the best site. On December 14 she announced that her campaign and petition drive had convinced the US Postal Service to take Roosevelt Island off the list of post offices to be shuttered. So for the time being a post office on Roosevelt Island was guaranteed.

The Announcements

Just as well, since four days later, on December 19, the Mayor revealed ahead of schedule that Cornell and Technion won the competition with a plan for building a facility on Roosevelt Island with 2 million square feet of space, costing $2 billion. The plan was given credibility by the announcement of the $350 million gift on top of the $100 million promised by the City of New York for infrastructure improvements and $300 million worth of land. The $350 million gift is the largest Cornell has ever received. With $750 million in hand, $2 billion doesn't seem so far away. The visionary Cornell donor was later identified as The Atlantic Philanthropies, founded and funded by Charles F. Feeney.

The Mayor must have been impressed not only by the degree of Cornell support but by the Cornell-Technion commitment to green architecture in the zero-pollution buildings themselves and in the planned academic staffing. It will also include major expertise in computer science (a given), energy efficiency and public health.

New Yorkers were ecstatic. BetaBeat ("The Lowdown on High-Tech") produced a slide show of "14 Terrifically Scientific Signs" that 2011 is "the year for New York Tech". One sign was the bypassing of Boston. Another was the materialization of the tech campus.

The Importance of the Campus

BetaBeat was being funny, but New York City may indeed soon be #1 in tech. Density is destiny and the aggregation of tech consumers and producers in NYC is going to be hard to beat when teamed up with a nerve center for high-tech research, education, innovation and financing. I have no inside information about why Stanford pulled out, but word of a $350 million gift by an alumnus to Cornell to support its bid for the tech campus may have prompted some serious questions to and by Stanford about the degree to which it could match this degree of commitment. The gift was a preemptive strike, about which much more will be written by people interested in the history and strategy of the relationship between cities and scientific knowledge and the commercial exploitation of this knowledge.

This is a breakthrough not just for New York City but for the United States. As manufacturing jobs have flowed overseas, the United States must generate new kinds of jobs - well-paid jobs. High-tech startups offer the potential for creating such jobs. University campuses that concentrate technical and business talent and provide incentives for forming startups have been proven job-generators.

I've been following this subject since 1973 when I wrote a report on "The Wealth of Cities" for the Council on Municipal Performance. From 1992 to 2006 I served three New York City Comptrollers as their Chief Economist and I worked on a report called "The NYC Software/IT Industry: How NYC Can Compete More Effectively in Information Technology" (April 1999). It shows how jobs in Information Technology in New York City grew 15 percent a year during the second half of the 1990s. I handed a copy to Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff early on in Mayor Bloomberg's first term. Here is a summary with links to the report. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said he liked it. I think it still makes good reading in the context of the new Cornell-Technion campus. See if you agree.

Happy New Year!


  1. John,

    My son Jason moved to NYC after spending 9 years in tech in San Francisco.

    The reason NYC is so hot in tech, is that the internet is all about advertising and the advertising money is here, so this is where the new tech companies want to be.

    Jason has been working on phone apps for advertisers that micro soft and google are using to compete with the Apples platform.

    I think its called Ruby programing.

    Blake Fleetwood

  2. There is another blog on this topic posted May 7, 2012.