November 4, 2013

HAMED: Cornell’s ‘Startup Problem’

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By ALI HAMED

Cornell is one of the top universities in the world. More importantly (in my eyes), its engineering school is one of the best in the world. Some of the greatest innovations in artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics and more have come out of the depths of Upson and Thurston Halls.

So why is it that Cornellians are so bad at launching startups? That’s right, I am calling out my own community. I am a part of the problem. I might even be a catalyst of the problem.

So far … I have failed.

In our time since founding the POPSHOP, amazing things have happened. We have drummed up excitement over entrepreneurship and we’ve prepared our managers and other students to launch companies upon graduation. We’ve seen some of our best students go to companies like Palantir, Behance and other top launching points.  But we have not seen enough success stories of student-run startups, founded by Cornellians who are still taking a full load of credits.

This is not to take anything away from startups on campus now, especially the ones that have gained traction (Rosie is a notable one that comes to mind). But it’s clear that there’s still a problem that needs to be explored.

Luckily, I believe the problem is a solvable one. With the help of  students, along with the already motivated staff at Entrepreneurship@Cornell, and with the momentum garnered by Cornell Tech in New York City, we can take each issue head on.

Classes are Hindering Students

There are not enough classes focused on “making” and being actionable. During a meeting last week, a member of Cornell’s Board of Trustees asked me how I had the time to run a business while being a student. I told him his question was aimed at the rub of the problem. Taking classes and founding a company should not be mutually exclusive. Any entrepreneurial course on campus should be focused on helping launch products that already exist, or help close in on a first sale. They should help make it easier to launch a startup.

The classes that include long-term planning, strategizing, projecting and so on don’t help students with the hardest part of building any company. It’s the 0-60 mph portion where someone must build something from nothing. By the time students get to 60 mph (a product with a few customers) everyone and their mother wants to help. But it’s getting something out the door that is hard. The school should start focusing on that thread.

Entrepreneurship classes should spend no more than one week per semester mentioning the long-term projecting. It should be a week in the beginning of the semester that validates whether or not the idea is big enough to be worth pursuing. That’s it.

We Need Cool Toys

It’s fun to work on the cutting edge — but Cornellians are months if not years behind.  On campus we do not have the opportunity to code on Google Glass, very few have access to the LeapMotion SDK  and hardly anyone has heard of Samsung’s smart watch.  This isn’t a new problem. When Facebook launched its app program it was Stanford that built a class on the back-half of the new opportunity. Within that single semester students like Matty Monahan and others had launched multi-million dollar businesses. Why was Cornell not playing in that game?

Startups are often born in response to a shift in available technology. When those new shifts happen, it’s up to our engineering departments, alumni and faculty to make those tools available to students. It will make hacking fun, and give us the chance to bring real products to commercialization.

Attracting the Best Students — and Leading By Example

Finally, the startup community has not attracted enough of the best talent at Cornell. Students with the highest opportunity cost have the hardest time jumping into a startup. The problem is the higher the opportunity cost, the more talented the student likely is. We need to do a better job of reaching out to the population on campus who are building new tools and excelling in various fields. Our job must be to teach them how to use such skill sets to change the world. We have to do this by broadening our recruitment efforts to areas such as the math department, the PhD community and by highlighting the students already doing amazing things.

We need to show that other bright students are taking the projects they’ve worked on and the skill sets they’ve gained and brought them to market, actively changing the way people live for the better.

CCTEC

It blows my mind that Cornell has lagged so far behind in commercializing technology as compared to MIT and Stanford.  Cornell often holds the rights to technology built by graduate students (who are getting paid by the school) and professors.  But they’ve essentially handicapped any commercial viability of new research.

I’d love for the group at CCTEC to reach out and explain their side of the problem.  But the fact is, they simply don’t encourage the commercialization of technology because the process is complicated and difficult. If students as involved in entrepreneurship as I am don’t understand it, how the hell is anyone else supposed to?

It blows my mind how far behind we are in commercializing our research.

Steps Forward

Cornell has the talent, it has the alumni network and it has the name to build the future’s next greatest companies — to facilitate the growth of amazing changes in culture, technology and beyond.

But by maintaining the status quo, Cornell will continue to struggle.

Last note: So far Zach Shulman, our new E@C director, seems to be doing an amazing job — I can’t wait to see what is to come in the next few years with him in charge!

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