hackNY Summer Series: Dan Huttenlocher, Greg Pass, and Thatcher Bell

In this post 2012 hackNY Fellow Jason Wright describes the hackNY Summer Series lecture by Dan Huttenlocher, Greg Pass, and Thatcher Bell.

Being the only Cornell student in this year’s class of hackNY Fellows, I was pretty excited when I noticed that Dan Huttenlocher, dean of computing and information science at Cornell, was giving a talk to hackNY along with Greg Pass, former CTO of Twitter and current Entrepreneurial Officer of CornellNYC Tech, and Thatcher Bell, Principal at DFJ Gotham, both Cornell alumni. To be honest, this was mostly because of (1) my Big Red pride, and (2) I was looking to convince them to let me hang out at Cornell’s new space at Google NYC as much as possible this fall.

However, what myself and the other fellows learned was that CornellNYC Tech is so much more than a satellite campus of our stodgy institution in Ithaca, NY, to be filled with traditional lecture halls and professors. Rather, it’s a visionary, one-of-a-kind proposal that seeks to integrate academia deeply with entrepreneurship, industry, and the technology community.

To give some background, CornellNYC Tech was selected in December 2011 by Mayor Bloomberg as the winner of a competition for a new applied sciences graduate campus in New York City, for which it received land on Roosevelt Island for construction to be completed in 2017. In the interim, Cornell will run classes & events out of temporary space in Google’s NYC office. Once the campus is open, Cornell will offer a joint two-year M.S. in Applied Science with the Technion Institute, in addition to traditional M.S. and Ph.D. offerings in fields like computer science, electrical engineering, and information science.

Huttenlocher began by describing the current model of tech development: a pipeline consisting of abstract academic research, focused R&D of concepts that come from universities, product development, marketing, and sales. The cordoning off of academic research means that ideas are disconnected from innovations, and tons of academic research doesn’t translate into meaningful technology because entrepreneurs either aren’t aware or can’t find profitable endeavors that use it.

CornellNYC Tech wants all of those stages to occur in parallel. The campus will break down traditional university conventions and create a place for students, faculty, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs to do research & make things together, at the same time. In doing so, the hope is that connections will naturally form between those groups. This will not only create mutual opportunities for collaboration, but will also enable real-time feedback loops to drive research & innovation in productive directions. Academics will advise entrepreneurs on technology development, and entrepreneurs will share real-world experiences and knowledge with academics.

In many ways, the project is itself a frighteningly ambitious startup — a proposal to disrupt academia by utilizing the help of government, two institutions not exactly known for their agility or flexibility. In addition, the inclusion of Technion as a partner institution flips the trend of U.S. universities expanding overseas on its head. The hope is that Technion, which is positioned at the center of the technology industry in Israel, will bring an international perspective to NYC.

Another important goal of the project is to accelerate the growth of the burgeoning tech industry in NYC. To accomplish this, students will have advisors in industry in addition to academic advisors. All three speakers specifically mentioned graduate education as something that should be closer to apprenticeship, in which students hone their skills and prepare to use them to do amazing things outside of school. Thatcher argued that this type of network-building was vital in creating a thriving a tech community to overcome the vastness of NYC’s economic activity in which other industries compete for people, attention, and investment.

Huttenlocher also addressed the issue of finding the right faculty members to participate. Much like a startup, he said, the first few hires set the tone for the organization’s entire culture. For Cornell, finding faculty members willing to relocate and work in an environment where they’ll be coworking right next to students and entrepreneurs instead of in a cozy office will be a challenge. While faculty members will still be affiliated with departments established in the Ithaca campus, their work in NYC will be much more decentralized and interdisciplinary. However, those people do exist — Deborah Estrin and Huttenlocher himself, who has bounced between Cornell, Xerox PARC, and various startups, are proof of that.

Greg Pass brings a wealth of experience to the table as well, having scaled Twitter from its early fail-whale days to the powerhouse that it is now. He emphasized that innovation should be data-driven and incremental, as opposed to academic theorizing that often privileges finding “clever” solutions at the expense of quick, practical ones. In response, Huttenlocher quipped that too much emphasis on being clever “bites you in the ass 100% of the time.”

All were sure to mention the experimental nature of the project, noting that we won’t see results for several years. If successful, it’s a model of education that could be applied in many other areas, even in primary education, and one that could revolutionize universities as we know them.

The excitement of hackNY in the room (the beautiful art.sy headquarters) was palpable, and I’m incredibly enthusiastic to have a future at the growing nexus of hackNY, CornellNYC Tech, and the NYC tech community.