How Cornell Tech brings entrepreneurship into the classroom

Does Cornell Tech have an inherent conflict of interest between its academic mission and its entrepreneurial focus?
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

Lauren Talbot, 26, was born and bred in Manhattan and went to Stanford University. Afterward, she became a computer programmer and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Talbot still felt like a New Yorker at heart, but her programmer boyfriend would always deride New York for not being a tech-y city.

She moved back anyway to work at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics as chief programmer. “While I was loving my job [at the mayor's office], I heard that Mayor Bloomberg was trying to build a tech campus in New York. And I was like, “Yes! Go Bloomberg! I totally feel what you’re trying to do here!”

This fall, Talbot enrolled full-time at Cornell Tech, a newly created school that offers a masters in engineering and computer science coupled with a strong entrepreneurial focus.

“I really wanted to be part of this new tech scene here. Even though my career was going well and it was a risk to go to school, to me it was a no-brainer,” she says.

The entrepreneurial emphasis makes Cornell Tech unusual, because, as chief entrepreneurial officer Greg Pass says, “There is an inherent conflict between the academic mission and the entrepreneurship mission.”

Earlier this year, Stanford University was criticized when a number of students dropped out to form a mobile payments startup called Clinkle, and several faculty members invested or were granted shares. At question was the university’s priorities –- did it encourage students to drop out in order to enrich faculty?

While entrepreneurship infuses the Cornell Tech program, the goal isn’t necessarily to create successful startups. "For our students interested in entrepreneurship, a great outcome would be that our student is a successful serial entrepreneur across many companies -- not that the particular company they started in school was their big win," Pass says. "While the students start companies here, I and other faculty are observing them and then intercepting with feedback and comments, asking them to reflect and really making it not an accelerator experience -- that’s not our objective -- but an educational experience. "

That’s why Cornell Tech's classes are a mix of straight-up classroom teaching, hands-on work for New York City tech companies and freewheeling discussions with entrepreneurs. The degree should have the same technical depth as a masters from Cornell or Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford, even if entrepreneurship is a strong emphasis, Pass says.

Talbot, for instance, says that this fall, her classes include Parallel and Distributed Computing; Signal and Image Processing, which applies data science to photos and music; and Mobile Networks, which is about building mobile phone apps.

For her Company Project class, she works on a preapproved project proposed by a New York tech company. This semester, she is working for 3-D printing company Shapeways to develop a mobile app that will recognize the objects coming out of the printer. When asked how this differs from working in an office, Talbot says the main difference is that there is an academic advisor who recommends certain studies to read for inspiration on solving the problem at hand. When asked if this is purely an academic exercise, she says, "If it’s good enough, they’ll definitely use it. Of course, it’s not strictly essential, otherwise they would have it. But there is a real [return on investment] on it."

Next semester, instead of working for another company, Cornell Tech students will take on their own startups. It remains to be seen how real the ROI will be on those projects.

(Photo: Kilograph)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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