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Now everyone will know that Cornell means business

Expanding into the Big Apple provides a platform for high-tech start-ups. John Morgan reports


Now everyone will know that Cornell means business
Island in the high-tech stream: Cornell University says that the New York City campus will be financially self-sufficient


Cornell University has a $4.4 billion (£2.8 billion) endowment, the global prestige enjoyed by Ivy League institutions and a picturesque campus nestled close to the national parks and waterfalls of upstate New York: a location that "inspires love at first sight", according to the university's website.

Yet Cornell casts envious eyes towards Boston and California's Silicon Valley: to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to Stanford University, with their reputations for turning out graduates who create successful technology-led businesses.

That yearning for more recognition in the creation of start-ups was a driving force in Cornell's decision to enter the contest - which it won in December - to build a science and engineering graduate campus in New York City, more than 200 miles from its home campus in Ithaca.

Kent Fuchs, Cornell's provost, said: "The advantage that Stanford and MIT have had is that their new business creation has been focused right next to the campus, while ours has been dispersed throughout the world."

Scenic though Ithaca may be, it is not a thriving business hub - so Cornell does not always receive recognition for its graduates' business records because they set up shop in bigger cities.

"Cornell graduates have a long history of setting up companies, but often Cornell doesn't get the credit for this," Professor Fuchs said.

"What this [the new campus] will do for us is it will allow those companies to be focused in a specific area of New York.

"The campus will have great benefits for the city but also give us a lot of visibility and credit for doing that."

The New York campus is scheduled to open in September at a temporary location before establishing itself at a spectacular permanent site on Roosevelt Island, in the East River, by 2017.

Professor Fuchs said that while the city administration did not have Roosevelt Island as its preferred site, Cornell was sold on that location from the start.

The aim is for the campus to found spin-off companies on either side of the East River in Manhattan and Queens - areas to which the campus will be well connected thanks to bridge, subway and tram links.

Expansion via a graduate school fits well with Cornell's strategy, which is committed to remaining at current levels of about 13,000 undergraduate students.

Paying its way

The New York project will be "totally financially self-sufficient", Professor Fuchs said, and will be "a growth, not a diversion of mission and resources". Operating costs are projected to be $2 billion over 30 years.

The campus plan was initiated by New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in a bid to make the city a world leader in technology and innovation. The competition opened in December 2010 and brought seven consortia bids from 17 universities around the world, including the University of Warwick in the UK.

Cornell was announced as the winner last month, shortly after Stanford withdrew its entry. Part of the campus will be run in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, focusing on master's degrees and research in applied science.

The City of New York will give the land for the development, as well as investing $100 million of public money to develop infrastructure for the campus.

Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which ran the campus contest, said the costs compared well with the spending by national governments in the Middle East and Asia to attract branch campuses set up by world-leading universities.

"We think we are getting an incredible bargain," he said.

Although Cornell was proclaimed the winner, New York could yet announce further academic developments, and universities such as Warwick remain hopeful of gaining a foothold there.

In terms of subject areas, the campus will be split into three hubs, with close links to New York's industries: connective media, healthier life and the built environment.

An essential supporting element is the $350 million donation - Cornell's largest ever - towards the campus from Charles F. Feeney, an alumnus who became one of the world's biggest philanthropists after establishing the Duty Free Shoppers Group.

Professor Fuchs said the campus represented "a truly unique opportunity for us to partner with the city itself".

He added that Cornell was convinced of the viability of the project by New York's financial and logistical commitment, which will be essential in overcoming the inevitable "roadblocks" that lie ahead.

Professor Fuchs said there was a willingness from New York to "put up resources in the form of property and also some funds - and also the willpower to make it happen".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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