New York City Takes on Silicon Valley

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Monday that Cornell University, with its partner the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, has been chosen to build a new applied sciences and engineering school on Roosevelt Island.  It is another sign of his administration’s push to promote and expand the city’s growing technology sector.

“It promises to create a beehive of innovation and discovery, attracting and nurturing the kind of technical talent that will spawn new companies, create new jobs and propel our city's economy to new frontiers,” the mayor said.

But even as the city pushes for the new campus, finding and duplicating the exact mix that made Silicon Valley what it is could be challenging. 

“A university by itself is not clear that it will transform New York into a more entrepreneurial dynamic place,” said Anna Lee-Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley. “So, one single institution can’t be the story of Silicon Valley or of creating a new Silicon Valley.”

The genius of Silicon Valley, she said, is its ability to market new ideas. “It’s about commercializing ideas, trying multiple experiments, new products, new ideas very, very quickly.”

That’s what New York City officials want to duplicate on this coast, aided by the creation of the new campus.

“Our goals for New York are not to be number two. Our goal is to be number one, and today that position is clearly held by Silicon Valley,” said Seth Pinsky, the president of the Economic Development Corporation.  “We think, though, that we have the ability over time to continue to gain on Silicon Valley.”

But it will take more than just an increase in the number of engineers. Warren Lee, a partner with the venture capital firm Canaan Partners, said the city also needs to reach a critical mass of entrepreneurs who have experience creating new companies. 

"It's much easier to build a larger company once you have done it a couple of times," Lee said.

And the size of those start-ups matter.

“It’s a sort of a numbers game,” he said. “Most companies fail. So the more companies that are there trying different things, the higher probability that one of them will become a $2 billion to $3 billion company.”

When a company reaches that level, not only do those at the top make money, but so do employees down at the lower levels: the programmers and the designers, even that guy in the mail room.

With more money available to more people, as well as the experience in creating a company, more individuals are freed up and able to create more companies, thus continuing the cycle and expanding the sector.

And according to those who follow, work in and invest in the tech sector, as important as engineers are to a tech company’s DNA, it involves many different types of employees to be a success.

Take the wildly popular app Angry Birds.  According to Dan Savage, managing partner with Resolute Digital, the most popular smart phones games are only 10 percent code. Savage, whose firm builds mobile apps, said the content and design of these programs can make up the other 90 percent of the product. 

And that’s where New York City excels.

“If you are New York, you don’t want to be Silicon Valley, you want to be New York,” said Om Malik, founder of online tech magazine GigaOm. “You have to be unique.”

Berkeley's Lee-Saxenina said recreating Silicon Valley’s success may not be as simple as building a new university. 

“A university by itself is not clear that it will transform New York into a more entrepreneurial dynamic place,” she said. “After all, we have big famous engineering universities in Texas and California, in Europe, in Germany and England, that don’t have Silicon Valleys around them. So one single institution can’t be the story of Silicon Valley or of creating a new Silicon Valley.”

City leaders are hopeful. They expect the Cornell’s new school to create nearly 600 spin-off companies, employing 60,000 people over the next 30 years.