I was at a conference about a year ago and listened to the head of tech transfer of one of New York’s major universities say “We’re doing a great job. I don’t think there’s anything we could possibly be doing better.” And he actually seemed to believe it.
I had a bit of culture shock. The last time I had heard that sort of complacency, it was when I worked at IBM in the late ’80s (see how that turned out!) Since then I have worked at professional services companies and in start-ups. That sort of attitude at either would be quickly fatal.
Stowe Boyd notices that Columbia and NYU do not have the sort of relationship with the New York entrepreneurial environment that Stanford does with Silicon Valley or MIT does with Cambridge. I couldn’t agree more.
Stanford (and Berkeley, I was reminded yesterday by an alum) has birthed companies all over Silicon Valley, from HP to Google. They are key drivers of the community there. And it’s no accident that the global hub of biotech is in the few blocks surrounding MIT.
I have degrees from both Columbia and NYU, and have a soft spot for both. But when I approached Columbia back in 1998, backed by a seriously large corporation, hoping to create a funnel for potential entrepreneurs into Silicon Alley, I was stymied by disinterest. I probably could have made it work without the university’s cooperation, but, really, I had better things to do with my time. I tried again in 2003/2004 with similar results. Maybe I was just talking to the wrong people. But, then, no one else seems to have made much progress either, at least as far as I can see.
Columbia* then and now, it seems, is more interested in the money coming from a patent than in providing an enhanced community for its alumni and a better economic environment for its host city. NYU is not nearly so bad, hiring people like Clay Shirky and backing places like NYCSeed. But even they are nowhere near as engaged with life outside the academy as Stanford or MIT. It’s a frustrating thing, and I wish I knew what I could do about it.
* The institution, that is, not necessarily the people in it. I hear tell of individual professors trying to steer bright students into entrepreneurial endeavours.