We don’t usually think of New York as an entrepreneurial capital, but we should. It’s most visible, literally, at street level, where the optimism and energy of new Americans delivers an ever-changing rainbow of small businesses: restaurants, retailers, hair stylists. Less geographically visible, but equally vibrant, is the community of digital entrepreneurs — in the last couple of years, such familiar trendsetters as Foursquare, bit.ly, and Etsy have emerged from the Big Apple.

 In an interview with the MIT Entrepreneurship Review, David Lerner ’90 talks about entrepreneurship in New York, with a particular focus on his work in promoting student startups and other university-based ventures:

David Lerner: Over the last 10-15 years it has become more and more acceptable for entrepreneurship to flourish on university campuses. Administrations, faculty and tech transfer professionals within the academy have begun to realize just how well-suited the university setting is for the incubation of new ventures. They have seen first-hand the benefits of successful spin-outs and student-led ventures to the reputation of their schools – just think of what Facebook did for Harvard or Google for Stanford. Universities may well now be the greatest breeding ground our society provides for a new class of emerging entrepreneurial talent to experiment and try new things that can lead to the formation of valuable technologies, teams and products. Not only do you have deep resources of intellectual capital on campus but you also have that essential raw human capital – a deep pool of talented, committed students, researchers, professors and the like who can play a central role in driving this phenomenon. Student entrepreneurship in particular is an emerging colossus. I have written about this phenomenon here.

MITER: You wrote previously about what universities can do to support entrepreneurship institutionally.  What do you think universities can do more to support student entrepreneurs on a more personal level – for example, personal and professional development, funding, etc? 

David Lerner: I really think it is incumbent on university administrations to take notice of this emerging colossus and encourage student entrepreneurship. It should be part of the educational mission – to empower and educate its students and best prepare them for life. Therefore, setting up dedicated venture labs (of the sort we have at Columbia and many other schools now including Georgia Tech, UPenn, Utah, ASU, Michigan, etc.) is the way to go in my view. This is a resource for students (and of course faculty) that gives them access to mentors, advice, contacts and general shaping of their entrepreneurial vision. In my view this is as important as a Career Office!

. . .

The Universities have been stepping up in a big way of late as well. At Columbia, our tech transfer office (CTV) has a dedicated Venture Lab that I operate, which I have described above. We hold entrepreneur office hours for the whole Columbia community, host entrepreneurial lecture series and work very closely with the angel, venture and entrepreneurial communities in the city. An example of a very promising student venture is Brooklyn-based Bamboo Bike Studio run by the super-talented Marty Odlin. We also have some really exciting portfolio companies that have spun-out from our labs recently such as Dygest, Vizio Medical Devices, NLP International, and Calm Energy.

At Columbia Business School we have the exceptional Lang Entrepreneurship Center and Lang Fund programs which have produced such high-flyers as Recycle Bank and others in recent years. We also have the emergence of HackNY, a collaboration between Columbia Professor Chris Wiggins and NYU’s Evan Korth. HackNY has been hosting student hackathons and is dedicated to getting talented students jobs in the startup world as opposed to Wall Street. Our engineering school also has a dedicated center for engaged entrepreneurship called CTICE as well as business plan competitions, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and other offerings.

NYU too is doing great things and has a brand new fund run by Frank Rimalovski specifically to invest in NYU startups. Professor Evan Korth is doing some amazing work with students there as well. You may, for example, have heard the enormous buzz surrounding Diaspora, in which a few NYU undergraduates hacked together an open source alternative to Facebook and raised well over one hundred thousand on Kickstarter (another NYC startup), in a matter of weeks.

Lastly I would add that grassroots entrepreneurial groups such as the Columbia Venture Community (1400+ members) and the NYU Venture Community have been enormously successful in holding pitch events, incubation events, entrepreneur cocktail events, etc. They recently joined forces to hold a terrific Startup Job Fair in downtown Manhattan for students from both schools.

Quick thoughts:

1) At only ~1500 followers on Twitter, David is not in contention for most-followed Eph — but he should be!

2) To what extent are the faculty at these universities excited about “student entrepreneurship.” I’d bet there’s not as much enthusiasm in the liberal-arts faculty as in, say, the business schools and development offices.

3) New York (and Boston) are so close to Williams, and yet — for these purposes — so far. If Ken’s first startup was nearly derailed by moving from Berkeley to adjacent Emeryville (itself home to numerous startups), the “proximity” to those cities that does so much for Ephs in other industries isn’t applicable here.

4) “setting up dedicated venture labs . . . is the way to go  . . . “[i]n my view this is as important as a Career Office!”

Williams has a career office. Assuming that a full-scale “venture lab” is better suited to a large university, what’s the liberal arts alternative? In my first post on this subject, the suggestion of an annual conference or something broader like Middlebury’s winter-term course plus conference received favorable reviews — but that’s not exactly a year-round resource.

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