Columbia Launches Startup Lab to Nurture Alumni Entrepreneurs

Columbia Startup Lab at WeWork Soho West

Columbia is heading downtown to help entrepreneurial alumni pursue their dreams—from aiding disaster survivors through online collaboration to improving emergency room care and bringing yoga to the workplace.

In June, Columbia launched Startup Lab—a collaborative space in the heart of SoHo’s Silicon Alley. More than 150 recent alumni competed for the 71 desks in the Startup Lab–a program of Columbia Entrepreneurship that offers subsidized rent, networking opportunities with founders, technologists, designers and venture capitalists, as well as classes in related subjects such as start-up law. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article on the lab, it is also fully integrated into the WeWork SoHo West community, which facilitates networking through events, meet-ups and personal introductions.

“We see the Columbia Startup Lab as an important and timely extension of our engagement with the economic, academic and social enterprise communities,” said Richard Witten, special advisor to President Lee C. Bollinger. Witten (CC’75), a former University trustee and partner at Goldman Sachs, was tapped by Bollinger to develop Columbia Entrepreneurship as a partnership between Columbia’s 17 schools and the offices of the President and Alumni Relations and Development. He notes that while his generation often looked to rise up the ladder in large companies, younger graduates are often more attracted to start-up businesses and mission-driven organizations that are more likely to challenge the status quo.

“What we’re doing downtown is to create a rich environment where young alumni can collaborate and grow their businesses,” said David Lerner, a member of Witten’s team and director of Columbia Entrepreneurship. Columbia Startup Lab reflects Witten’s goal to connect the talent of Columbia’s many schools and institutes with New York’s entrepreneurial culture. The entrepreneurs— who must have graduated within the past five years—come from Columbia College, the School of International and Public Affairs, as well as Law, Business and Engineering. “There is widening recognition that entrepreneurship is an important aspect of what great research universities are about,” said Witten.

And the Startup Lab is a natural extension of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s history of moving entrepreneurial ideas directly from its labs into the marketplace. “We see Columbia engineers embracing their role to really ignite this part of the economy,” said Mary Boyce, dean of the Engineering School, which offers an increasingly popular minor in entrepreneurship.

Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Business School, agrees, adding that entrepreneurial skills and working across disciplines are essential to compete in today’s business world. “All students will need the ability to think entrepreneurially,” said Hubbard. “Many of the best new ventures coming out of the Business School will require engineering and other talent to become fully realized.”

The moment for the Startup Lab could not be better, as New York City has become the second largest hotbed of entrepreneurship in the world after Silicon Valley. Support for entrepreneurship is blossoming across the University. Just a few examples include the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at the Business School, which hosts a Venture Fair and sponsors an Entrepreneur in Residence Program. Under Dean James Valentini, Columbia College has devoted resources to initiatives such as invigorating the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE), the largest entrepreneurship club at Columbia. Merit E. Janow, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), likewise has a deep commitment to entrepreneurship, which includes the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant, a business plan competition that encourages the innovative use of technology.

In April, Columbia Entrepreneurship hosted #StartupColumbia, the University’s first entrepreneurship festival, organized along with CORE and the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization at the Business School, drawing speakers such as Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston and The Harlem Children’s Zone founding CEO Geoffrey Canada.

The start-ups participating in Columbia Startup Lab reflect the diversity of students and areas of expertise at Columbia. Tyler Radford (SIPA’12) created RecoveryHub, a website that helps communities and humanitarian organizations direct relief and recovery efforts. Elizabeth Wilkes (BUS’13) founded Exubrancy to offer fitness, massage and meditation classes in the offices of New York City companies. Wilkes developed the idea in the “Launching New Ventures” class taught by Lerner and Brendan Burns, both adjunct associate professors at the Business School. BoardRounds is a transitional care management service for hospitals to ensure that patients leave with appropriate and cost-effective follow-up care. It was founded by Aditya Mukerjee (CC’12) and Dr. Benjamin Jack (SEAS’07).

Asked what budding entrepreneurs can learn from thriving start-ups, Lerner said, “Make sure you are addressing a real problem in the market and you have a team extremely suited to solving it.”

—by Gary Shapiro