When visitors enter the new Columbia University startup lab in Downtown Manhattan, they can practically feel creativity in the air. Young people huddle around their laptops as they work on new startups in fields like law, tech and international development.
Even more incredible, given the bustling environment, is the fact that until about 10 weeks ago the entire area was a loading dock. But through a new partnership between Columbia and the co-working space WeWork, over 71 budding young companies — all run by Columbia alums — have set up shop on the first floor of WeWork’s SoHo flagship location, in the heart of what is known as New York’s Silicon Alley.
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“Entrepreneurship is the application of innovation. So business, college, law, engineering — they’re all innovating, they’re all studying stuff conceptually, academically,” explains Chris McGarry, the director for entrepreneurship in the University Office of Alumni and Development. “There comes a time when a lot of them either want to pursue a more academic career or apply those innovations, so that’s what entrepreneurship is about: providing you the resources to make that application.”
According to McGarry, Columbia decided to make a foray into the startup world because of the increasing demand for more entrepreneur and business programs at higher education institutions across the country.
Here’s how the partnership works: Each startup is chosen by Columbia after an extensive application process. Founders are required to detail their ideas and future plans. Once chosen, the company receives a heavily subsidized desk at the new startup lab, with the bulk of the costs being paid by the university. “So that gives them some skin in the game and some commitment,” says McGarry.
“Starting a business is still very, very difficult, but compared to 10 or 15 years ago, it is much, much easier to launch a business, particularly a tech-based business,” McGarry points out. “What we try to do is energize the pockets of entrepreneurship of our campus so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and this is a perfect example of that.”
While co-working spaces have gotten quite trendy among entrepreneurial crowds, many cubicle-dwellers still may not be familiar with it. Many entrepreneurs stress the importance of having a community of people to bounce ideas off of.
“This environment is set up in order to help teams bump into each other and discover what they’re doing, share what they’re doing and then begin to informally collaborate with each other,” says McGarry. “I may have solved a problem this week that you’re having now, and maybe next week somebody else can help you with a problem that you’re having.”
“It didn’t take long for all of us to recognize that there was a mutually beneficial opportunity to create a place within our community,” adds WeWork cofounder Miguel McKelvey.
Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter at @LakshmiGandhi.