OTTY 2019 Honoree: Booting up a tech school

06 Mar 2019 | 03:56

    Less than seven years after Cornell Tech launched its programs as a temporary guest in Google’s Chelsea headquarters, the school is well on its way to transforming its new Roosevelt Island campus into a key hub for one of the city’s most promising industries.

    Cornell Tech’s evolution from nascent idea to influential institution took place under the leadership of Daniel Huttenlocher, who has served as the school’s dean since its inception. Cornell Tech’s pioneering model brings graduate students, researchers, and business leaders together under the same banner to develop new companies and technologies.

    “The idea is under one roof to get academics, bigger companies, smaller companies, all there interacting,” Huttenlocher said.

    Huttenlocher will leave Cornell Tech in August to take a new position as dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Schwarzman College of Computing. But he leaves behind a school poised to contribute to New York City for decades to come.

    “It’s this amazing opportunity both to build the organization from scratch — we’re hiring faculty and staff who are coming here because we’re building a different kind of thing from a programmatic point of view — and then there’s also the physical infrastructure, where we’re also trying to take different approaches,” he said.

    A Campus to Match a MissionCornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus, which opened in 2017 and will continue to expand through 2043, is designed to reflect the school’s interdisciplinary mission. Its ample open areas, transparent glass facades and collaborative spaces are intended to remove barriers and encourage partnership between leaders in computing, engineering, business, law, and design

    “These are all important aspects of building modern-day digital stuff and they’re often still very separate from each other in the academic world, and also in many companies, frankly,” Huttenlocher said. “I think we’re at the place where we really are the future in bringing those together in a more integrated manner.”

    A Deep Tech Talent PoolIt’s no coincidence that Cornell Tech’s rise occurred in tandem with the ascendance of New York City’s tech sector, which now accounts for hundreds of thousands of jobs at companies ranging from blue chips to startups—about 50 of which trace their roots to Cornell Tech. The school itself is a product of the strategic effort, begun under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued by Mayor Bill de Blasio, to promote growth in the city’s technology sector by fostering a pipeline of elite talent.

    The city’s talent pool, and Cornell Tech specifically, were major selling points in Amazon’s since-abandoned decision to build new corporate offices in Long Island City. Huttenlocher, who sits on Amazon’s board of directors and recused himself from matters relating to the new campus, said the decision won’t affect Cornell Tech’s commitment to working with companies of all scales in the city’s vibrant tech scene, including Amazon.

    “Am I disappointed? Certainly,” he said. “But it doesn’t really change what we’re doing here. Amazon would have been one of a number of large companies that we’d be working with here in New York. And frankly they’re still in New York. They’ve got thousands of employees here. We work with them and we will continue to work with them.”

    Cornell Tech’s current student body of roughly 300 is expected to swell to more than 2,000 as the school expands over the next two decades.

    “I can point to great contributions we’ve made, but in many ways one of our contributions is being a symbol of the commitment to tech in the city,” Huttenlocher said.