Start Me Up

At the Columbia Startup Lab, the ideas keep on clicking.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2014
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Photographs by Jörg Meyer

Just south of Houston Street and west of Sixth Avenue, there’s a three-block-long lane called Charlton Street. You may not have heard of it — as far as famous New York City streets go, it doesn’t exactly rank at the top. In fact, in 2011, it was deemed so inconsequential that it was stricken from the subway map.

But it was here in 1776, on what was then a country estate, that George Washington made his Revolutionary War headquarters. It was to this land that Aaron Burr returned for breakfast after slaying Columbia College trustee Alexander Hamilton in 1804 (planned as Burr Street, it was re-christened after the duel in memory of Columbia trustee John Charlton). It was developed for the modern age by real-estate mogul John Jacob Astor, and later taken over by Tammany Hall bosses. And as New York became a center of industry in the mid-1800s, it was there, in a small loft on the corner of Varick Street, that a German immigrant named Henry Steinway founded what would become the most famous piano manufacturer in the world.

That is to say: it may be a small street, but Charlton is in many ways a microcosm of New York’s history and economic development. It is undeniable that we’re in another moment of shape shifting today, as New York expands its economy to make room for a robust “Silicon Alley.” According to the New York Times, venture-capital investment in New York City totaled $3 billion in 2013 alone. And Charlton Street — and Columbia — is in on the action.

This past July, on the corner of Charlton and Varick, Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, and the deans from Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, SIPA, and the business school cut the ribbon for the Columbia Startup Lab, a 5,100-square-foot co-working space for recent-alumni entrepreneurs.

“It’s a place where people can go to work on their projects in a protective environment,” says Richard Witten ’75CC, the former vice chairman of Columbia’s Board of Trustees and the founder of Columbia Entrepreneurship, a new initiative out of Bollinger’s office that supports student and alumni ventures.

The lab provides heavily subsidized yearlong leases for forty-five of those ventures (involving seventy-one alums total), which take up the ground floor of a building of communal workspaces designed by the startup WeWork. Its creation was a response, in part, to the changing job market and the interests of students and alums.

Columbia is no stranger to innovation: its alumni include John Stevens 1768KC, who pioneered the steam-engine locomotive; Edwin Armstrong 1913SEAS, the inventor of FM radio; and more recently Ben Horowitz ’88CC, who together with Mark Andreessen has reinvented how venture capitalists nurture nascent startups. But the current trend of universities preparing students specifically for entrepreneurship is unprecedented. Whereas Columbians a generation ago largely invested their ideas in careers at existing companies, today many are coming to the University looking to go out on their own. Undergraduates entering Columbia can apply to live in incubator dorms. Many schools now offer courses on raising capital and drafting business plans. And CORE, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, has become the largest nonpartisan, secular student organization on campus.

“In today’s economy, inventors must also be entrepreneurs if their ideas are to become practical innovations in the marketplace,” says Mary Boyce, the dean of the engineering school. “So, in training tomorrow’s leaders, we believe entrepreneurship education and support are essential. With the Startup Lab, Columbia innovators now have a powerful home base for their businesses.”

It is tempting to wonder if the next Facebook or PayPal will emerge from Charlton Street, but the lab takes a much broader view of entrepreneurship. It isn’t just about building the next viral Web phenomenon or even about generating the biggest profit; it’s about seeing a need in society and addressing it.

“Entrepreneurship is about solving problems,” says Witten. “The solution can be a process, an invention, an algorithm, a thing that you can hold, a policy program. The important part is that there’s been a translation, a practical application of a big idea. Something has happened that has turned a problem into an action. That goes right to the heart of the mission of a great research university. What are we here for if not that?”

The lab is the biggest and most visible initiative to date from Columbia Entrepreneurship, which is what Witten calls a “convening resource” for entrepreneurship efforts at the University. Witten says people across campus were certainly thinking about entrepreneurship before the organization’s formation, but their efforts were “largely ad hoc, not tethered to the University.” Columbia Entrepreneurship provides office hours and mentorship for student and alumni ventures, brokers collaborations between existing organizations, and advocates on behalf of Columbia to the city and state development corporations, among other projects.

A major part of Columbia Entrepreneurship’s agenda has been bringing relevant programming to campus. Last April, it hosted #StartupColumbia, the first installment of what it plans to make an annual conference, which drew speakers like Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Shazi Visram ’99CC, ’04BUS, the founder of the organic-food company Happy Family. The conference culminated in a $50,000 business-plan competition. This fall, the group hosted a keynote address by technology entrepreneur and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel.

At the lab, too, programming is integral.

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