Courtesy of Cornell University

The Tata Innovation Center on Cornell Tech's campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

November 15, 2018

Amazon to Neighbor Cornell Tech in New York City: What are the Pros and Cons?

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Technology giant Amazon announced Tuesday morning that it has chosen New York City and Arlington, Virginia to house its second headquarters. The New York site, located in Long Island City in Queens, is just a five-minute ferry ride away from the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

Cornell Tech, which embodies then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision, aims to become the innovation incubator to New York City’s tech industry as Stanford is to the Bay Area.

In a statement to The Sun, Josh Hartmann, chief practice officer at Cornell Tech, said the school is “proud to welcome Amazon … as its new neighbor” and that Amazon’s arrival will bring prosperity to the tech sector of the metropolis.

“Cornell Tech is spinning out hundreds of graduates each year as well as groundbreaking, impactful research,” Hartmann said. “New York City has emerged as a destination for tech and innovation, and Amazon’s arrival will accelerate growth and success for the city and for Cornell Tech.”

The founding dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, Daniel P. Huttenlocher, also sits on Amazon’s board of directors. Huttenlocher recused himself from Amazon’s search process, according to President Martha E. Pollack.

The day before Amazon’s announcement, Pollack said in an interview with The Sun that she believes Cornell Tech is part of what made the Queens option compelling to Amazon executives, who were shown around the campus during their tour of New York City, according to The New York Times.

“Although I have no insights into the Amazon board, it seems like it’s very likely that Cornell Tech is one of the reasons that [New York City] is such an attractive site,” Pollack said.

A view of the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A view of the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.

Unlike Pollack, who has utmost confidence in Cornell Tech’s influence, when asked about whether the school added weight to Long Island City’s bid, Sarah Le Cam ’16 M.Eng ’18 — a recent graduate from Cornell Tech — said “maybe.”

In an interview with The Sun, Le Cam said she didn’t know the school was part of the Amazon executives’ tour, but Cornell Tech did bring in many tech talents, which the city and its tech sector have been longing for.

Although Amazon can accelerate the development of New York City’s tech and startup communities, which will be beneficial for the students, Le Cam said she’s worried that the tech giant’s overwhelming resources might pose a challenge for student entrepreneurs.

“One thing we often talked about is, ‘oh we can’t do this because Amazon will just do it, they have so much more money,’” Le Cam, who co-launched the startup Kipit during her time as a Cornell Tech student, told The Sun. “It would be great if [Cornell Tech and Amazon] could form a positive relationship where Amazon supports or even endorses student projects at Cornell Tech … so that [its presence] doesn’t hurt entrepreneurship.”

Amazon has been one of the partner companies in Cornell Tech’s Product Studio, a class during which students are paired with a company and need to respond to the challenges the company posed with new products or strategies, according to Le Cam. With Amazon settling down right across the East River, Le Cam said she believes the partnership will be even more beneficial for students hoping to launch their startup.

“The relationship [between Amazon and Cornell Tech] is going to be even better now, now that students can interact in person with Amazon employees,” Le Cam said. “Amazon bringing 25,000 jobs to New York City will help establish [the city] as a mecca for tech development in the future, and the more people are attracted to the area, the more entrepreneurial it will be.”

Besides partnering in the curriculum, Cornell Tech has already established a “direct point of contact” with Amazon, which gives students access to use its Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence technologies in their projects. Starting this academic year, representatives of the company also visit Cornell weekly to talk to and coach student entrepreneurs, according to Fernando Gómez-Baquero, director of Runway and Spinouts at Cornell Tech.

The Bloomberg Center and The Bridge building are covered with photovoltaic arrays, and the lawn covers about 80 geothermal wells.

Josh Girsky / Sun Senior Editor

The Bloomberg Center and The Tata Innovation Center are covered with photovoltaic arrays, and the lawn covers about 80 geothermal wells.

Gómez-Baquero said having Amazon as a neighbor will allow Cornell Tech to explore particular topics that are of mutual interest, such as health technology, a field in which Amazon’s logistics and processing capabilities will be useful in figuring out how to “reach out to hospitals, doctors, to patients in NYC and figure out how to do better technologies on the health side.”

Despite the welcoming attitude from Cornell Tech — and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Mayor Bill de Blasio — Amazon’s decision has also been received with concerns from politicians, who worry that its presence will drive up housing rates and put extra burden on New York City’s transportation system. They also said that the $2 billion subsidy promised to Amazon will impair the City’s ability to care for other sectors.

“We are very concerned about the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods we represent — Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Astoria and Roosevelt Island — and on the already overburdened housing markets in these areas,” wrote Ben Kallos, member of the New York City Council representing Roosevelt Island, in a joint statement issued via Twitter with three other council members. “Our offices are constantly working with constituents who are losing their homes due to rapidly escalating rents.”

“At a time when corporate taxes are an at all-time low, when we are in desperate need of infrastructure improvement such as with the MTA, and at a time when homelessness is at or near an all-time high, we should be investing in our communities first,” the statement continued.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also wrote that New York City should not be providing financial assistance to Amazon, “one of the wealthiest companies in history,” when “too many New York families struggle to make ends meet.”

A view of the Manhattan skyline from the 26th floor of The House building on Cornell Tech campus.

Josh Girsky / Sun Senior Editor

A view of the Manhattan skyline from the 26th floor of The House building on Cornell Tech campus.

These potential problems, on the other hand, are not unusual to cities “that get new fusion of so many people that fast,” according to Gómez-Baquero, who said the opportunities and room for development that Amazon brings are worth taking these risks.

“We’ve seen this before in Seattle and Austin when the semiconductor industry came in … there will be challenges, for sure, and it’s not gonna be all perfectly smooth, but at the end of the day, I think the positives definitely outweigh those challenges,” Gómez-Baquero told The Sun.

Nevertheless, relevant parties still need to be “very proactive” in preparing ahead for all the foreseeable situations before Amazon officially moves in, Gómez-Baquero said, adding that coming up with solutions and contingencies also gives Cornell Tech students a chance to put their skills and education to use.

“In general, we are all pretty excited … not just Amazon coming to New York, [but also] the whole ecosystem surrounding New York and how Cornell is now really in the perfect spot,” Gómez-Baquero said. “The vision that we can build a tech campus in the middle of Manhattan, Long Island City and Roosevelt Island is there, it’s happening.”