Start-ups as education

Start-ups drive innovation today, because they can: they are small, agile, not bound by traditions and procedures.

November 22, 2016 20:12
4 minute read.
The Technion

The Technion. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Two countries stand out in the world for leading research universities and high-tech sectors that drive a large section of their economies. They are the United States and Israel.

Much has been written about the role of universities in the evolution of a start-up, high-tech ecosystem. Stanford and MIT come to mind, with their essential role in the emergence of Silicon Valley and the Boston high-tech sector. Cambridge, in Great Britain, and our own Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, are also members of the world “top 10” in this respect according to an MIT study. But truth be told, we do not really know how this “catalytic” effect – universities influencing the creation of start-ups – works, how this success can be continued, expanded and adopted by other universities and countries. So let us try to look in a different direction: what can we learn from start-ups about higher education? How do we build academia for our digital age?

We live in a digital age: computing catalyzes and disrupts everything, from machines to music, from health to human interaction. Technology moves faster and faster, and everything around us changes quickly. In the past, development was done sequentially: marketing people define a need, engineers develop a prototype, application- domain experts obtain feedback, test, finalize, produce and then sell. To succeed today we need to execute much faster, by creating a team combining all of these talents, one that communicates effectively across disciplines, works fast, takes risks and shortcuts, evaluates its projects honestly, drops dead-ends quickly and without sentiment and focuses relentlessly on the goal. These very traits are part of the “Israeli spirit,” and became a part of the digital start-up ecosystem worldwide.

When Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, announced an international competition for a tech campus that will catalyze the New York digital start-up ecosystem, the winners – Cornell in partnership with Technion – had a unique opportunity to rethink education for the digital age. The resulting campus – Cornell Tech – and its centerpiece, the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, are academic institutes that make Cornell and Technion proud, and focus on creating leaders and technologies for the digital age. This is accomplished by learning from the world outside of academia and educating for teamwork, cross-discipline communication and cutting-edge techniques in ideation, design, disruption and product management, agility and constant self-evaluation. To keep up with the rapid changes in the high-tech sector, students learn – mostly through projects – all those skills from the very people who practice them every day: practitioners, members of the high-tech community. This is not just school: this is education, designed for the digital age.

Start-ups drive innovation today, because they can: they are small, agile, not bound by traditions and procedures. The Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute plays that role within Cornell Tech: small, agile, free to experiment with research and education, with the creation of technologies and with ways of making an impact beyond academia, on the commercial world and for social good. It combines the best of the Israeli spirit and American abilities and leverages the strengths of its two parent universities. It is a new model designed to keep academia changing at the speed of the digital age.

One experiment is the Runway Start-up Postdoc program at the Jacobs Institute. Conceived by professors from Technion and Cornell and by entrepreneurs from Israel and New York, the program lives in the sweet spot where the added value of universities is greatest – creating deep technologies – yet drives the application of those technologies to make impact on the world. The program is a hybrid of a postdoc program and a startup incubator, providing PhD graduates with high-level mentoring in science and technology, in business and entrepreneurship as well as a broad supportive environment that includes funding and networking. All this, without affecting their ability to move fast – as start-ups, without the usual constraints of universities, and with “industry standard” intellectual property, licensing and investment agreements.

The Jacobs Institute drives the global activity of Cornell Tech, and in particular serves as a bridge between Israel and the US in research, in start-ups and in education. Israeli and international entrepreneurs that need the New York ecosystem to succeed can join the Runway program, and can find support at the Jacobs Institute. Researchers from Israel collaborate with colleagues at Cornell Tech, and Jacobs continuously seeks new ways to widen the bridge, for the benefit of academia and the start-up ecosystems, in Israel and in New York City.

This outward-looking approach includes strong ties with the industrial and commercial world. Research is inspired by problems raised by partners from industry and commerce, is done in collaboration with their efforts, and the more daring ideas are supported by partners. The banking industry for example offers forward-looking challenges around new definitions and use of money, around security and privacy, and Bank Hapoalim was one of the first to extend a hand in that direction.

Imagining a new campus from the ground up is an amazing opportunity: hopefully others will learn from the successes (and failures) of Cornell Tech and the Jacobs Institute, as they chart new direction in education and entrepreneurship for the digital age.

The author is the Technion’s senior executive vice president and former director of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute.

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