November 20, 2018

ISLAND OF SCIENCE: Technion Teams Up With Cornell to Bring Startup Nation to America

Roosevelt Island is a curious spit of land in the East River, nestled between Manhattan and Queens. It began as farmland, then housed a penitentiary and lunatic asylum and, later, hospitals.

Once home to the diseased and criminally insane, today it is home to a cutting-edge complex that is a marriage of Cornell University and Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology. Their union is launching new companies in an effort to create New York City’s own Silicon Valley. And, not incidentally, boost Israel’s image.

Based on what is already percolating at Cornell Tech and the related Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, they are on their way.

The Cornell-Technion marriage — and a great deal of philanthropic and city funding — has produced architecturally interesting, environmentally sensitive new buildings, which house academic programs and the nascent businesses.

Cornell Tech is the overall owner of the Roosevelt Island enterprise. Within it is the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the two universities that includes a double degree-granting master’s program and a post-doctoral fellowship designed to launch inventive tech businesses.

Cornell Tech and the Jacobs Institute moved into their new home in August, in time to open their doors for the current school year. The programs are housed in two buildings at the south end of the almond shaped, 2-mile-long, 800-feet-wide island. Elsewhere on the island, some 14,000 people now live in apartment buildings that first opened in 1975.

The story of the joint venture begins seven years ago, when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a competition to create an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. Fifty educational institutions were invited to compete. Technion was the only one from Israel.

Technion President Peretz Lavie recalls asking Bloomberg why Technion was invited. The mayor told him that “you took Jaffa oranges and turned them into semiconductors and I’d like you to do the same in New York,” Lavie said in an interview with the Journal. At its home campus, Haifa-based Technion has 14,500 students majoring in engineering, science, medicine and architecture.

The ultimate goal of their union? To create New York’s own Silicon Valley.

The project’s ultimate goal is to be an economic engine for the city of New York and feed talent into the growing tech sector. In a Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute video, Bloomberg says he expects Cornell Tech to contribute $23 billion to New York’s economy over the next three decades.

It was a high-stakes, hugely visible competition. The mayor pledged nearly free use of Roosevelt Island and $100 million of the city’s money.

Once it decided to apply to the New York City competition, Technion forged ahead with a sky’s-the-limit approach.

“Designing a university from scratch is the fantasy of every university president,” Lavie said. He told Technion’s deans to “think out of the box. It is a new academic adventure. Let’s think about a new way of education that would be difficult to implement usually because universities are very conservative.”

Twenty seven universities, from Manhattan’s Columbia University to one in Korea expressed interest. Seven submitted complete proposals, with Stanford and Cornell considered the front-runners. After months of secret talks, Cornell and Technion decided to join forces.

“Technion didn’t have a chance” of winning the competition alone, said philanthropist Sanford Weill during a tour of the Cornell Tech campus on Oct. 26. Weill is chairman emeritus of Citigroup and a major donor to New York institutions, including Carnegie Hall and the Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. “Not because it wasn’t capable, with its graduates running half the high techs in Israel,” he said in a presentation welcoming about 200 Technion donors who were visiting the campus, “but because the Israeli government wouldn’t invest in the United States.”

Stanford dropped out after Cornell announced it received a $350 million then-anonymous gift toward construction costs. On Dec. 19, The New York Times reported that the Cornell-Technion partnership was the winner, which soon was formally announced.

Google quickly offered them free space to kick off their partnership until Roosevelt Island’s campus was ready. The new enterprise stayed at Google, whose building takes up an entire square block in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, from 2012 until August, when it moved onto Roosevelt Island with about 300 graduate students.

When construction on Cornell Tech concludes in roughly 15 years, plans call for 2 million square feet of educational space on two acres, accommodating 2,000 students and 280 professors.

At the moment, three buildings are finished. Two house classrooms, studios and offices: The Bridge, and the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center. The latter is named for Michael Bloomberg’s daughters and funded with a $100 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Nearby is a boxy, 26-story building called The House, which provides housing for 550 students and faculty. Built to Passive House standards, which require little energy to achieve a comfortable temperature year round, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, it is designed to optimize energy consumption by using passive solar heating and cooling techniques and is essentially airtight.

Enormous arrays of photovoltaic panels top The Bridge and Bloomberg buildings. Under a rolling lawn outside, 80 tanks collect rainwater through the grass. They provide gray water used to water the lawn during dry periods and flush toilets inside the Bloomberg Center.

There are other ways the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute is special, as well. As the only overseas university approved to grant degrees on American soil, it is a jewel in Technion’s crown, Lavie said. While it is Technion’s first foray into international branching out, the Israeli university is slated to open its second international campus, in China, next month.

The Jacobs Institute, which occupies about a third of the overall Cornell Tech space, is named after donors Irwin and Joan Jacobs, who gave the project $133 million. Irwin Jacobs is a founder of mobile chipmaker Qualcomm.

The Jacobs Institute has two interdisciplinary parts.

One is a master’s degree program focused on “hubs” in health technology and in connective media. The 70 master’s students earn two degrees: one from Cornell and one from Technion. A third hub, now in the planning stages, will focus on urban cyber-physical systems, said Ron Brachman, Jacobs Institute’s director.

The hubs are designed to be flexible. They “could have a finite lifetime and be phased out when they’re no longer providing something unique you can’t get elsewhere,” Brachman said. “At other universities, programs go on indefinitely.”

Eva Stern-Rodriguez is a first-year master’s student focusing on connective media. In one required course, called Product Studio, students develop projects with potential real-world applications. She is collaborating with students from inside and outside of the Jacobs Institute. The app they are designing would connect skilled immigrants with nonprofit organizations to help them build financial stability.

Many immigrants don’t know how to access that kind of support, Stern-Rodriguez said, and “a lot of NGO [nongovernmental organizations] websites are hard to parse or out of date because they don’t have the money to do updates.” Their app will launch in English and Spanish presenting a curated list of NGOs meant to allow immigrants to find the information they need in one place.

In another class Stern-Rodriguez is taking on new media, students are partnering with media companies to develop new ways of fact-checking.

“You took Jaffa oranges and turned them into semiconductors, and I’d like you to do the same in New York.” — Michael Bloomberg

In the master’s program’s second semester, student teams compete to win one of four $100,000 awards given to projects with the best startup potential, said Jacobs Institute Director Brachman.

Plans for the Cornell Tech campus call for 2 million square feet of educational space on two acres. Photo by Iwan Baan

The last of the Jacobs Institute hubs will focus on “the convergence of the digital world and urban life,” Brachman explained. It relates to “intelligent transportation systems, smart buildings, the social media elements of governance and other types of urban planning, like urban robotics, which could be helping people and populations.”

The other part of the Jacobs Institute is its Runway program.

Runway offers salaried fellowships to post-doctoral students, providing the training, space and seed money they need to launch new tech companies. Each post-doc student has mentors both in their discipline and on the business side. They get instruction on finance and fundraising and the program files patents for them. The value of each fellowship, which lasts between one and three years, starts out at $175,000 for the first year, said Fernando Gomez-Baquero, a nanomaterials engineer recently appointed director of Jacobs’ Runway and Spinouts. In return, the Jacobs Institute gets a small ownership stake in the new business.

The first 21 post-doc fellows launched 17 companies, 14 of which are still in business, Gomez-Baquero said.

One Runway startup is Shade. It developed a small sensor to attach to clothing and measure the ultraviolet rays to which its wearer is exposed. Its first market will be people with autoimmune diseases triggered by sunlight, like lupus, explained its creator, Emanuel Dumont, in a presentation. Since sunlight also ages skin, it also has a potential market in the beauty industry, he said.

Another startup, Biotia, is aimed at battling hospital infections. One in 25 people admitted to the hospital acquires an infection there, according to Biotia, and one in nine people will die from that infection. The risk is even higher for cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems. Their product helps hospitals quickly sequence swabbed pathogens’ DNA to identify what it is and treat it appropriately. Their first major customer, a large hospital in Southeast Asia, has just bought the product, Gomez-Baquero said.

A third new product, already on the market — perhaps Runway’s most successful launch to date — is the Nanit baby monitor (see sidebar).

A product that failed was an app that would take a photo of food and provide nutritional information, Gomez-Baquero said. Its inventors “were very close to doing a partnership with Weight Watchers, but it didn’t work in the end. The market didn’t really want to pay for a service like that. It didn’t seem to be a viable business model,” he said.

The Bloomberg Center is one of three finished buildings on campus. Photo by Matthew Carbone

Runway is fine trying startups that fail, he said.

“We don’t measure ourselves by the ones that are successful. Our mandate as Jacobs and as Runway is to experiment. To really push the boundaries,” he said.

The Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute endeavor is also having a more prosaic impact. It has boosted fundraising for the American Technion Society, said Jeffrey Richard, its executive vice president. “[Now] when our staff, lay leaders and supporters are out in public trying to tell the Technion story, there’s much more recognition [of the university],” he said.

That’s showing up in its bottom line. In its last big fundraising campaign, which ended in 2014, the U.S. development organization for Technion raised an average of $84 million a year, he said.

“Now we’re averaging $140 million a year in campaign support. We’re definitely seeing increases,” Richard said.

“It makes things more tangible” to potential donors, said Reyna Susi Dominitz, who heads the Miami branch of ATS, during the Roosevelt Island tour.

“We don’t measure ourselves by the ones that are successful. Our mandate…is to really push the boundaries.” – Fernandez Gomez-Baquero

Daniel Doctoroff is CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (i.e., Google-related) company focused on designing cities of the future. When Bloomberg was mayor, Doctoroff worked as New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development. He went on to run Bloomberg L.P., the financial information company.

While Doctoroff wasn’t involved in creating Cornell Tech or the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, he is familiar with the project, and bullish about its prospects for contributing to the technology industry and New York City’s economy.

“They’re still in the very early days,” Doctoroff said. “But it’s very encouraging. … It offers incredible promise.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a freelance writer in New York.