Startup U

For a few months, those of us who care passionately about the New York City tech community have been debating the City’s Applied Sciences NYC plan, which will drive the creation of a world-class research university here in NYC. Since a significant number of prominent, respected tech leaders have expressed their skepticism about the idea, I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m for it.

To start, though, I should explain why I’m surprised to be on this side of the debate. I didn’t really go to college (I spent a few months here and there at various places, but not in any meaningful way) and have long been vocal about the fact that many people, including some of the most creative people in the tech industry, don’t learn in a way that colleges and universities teach. There’s often a mismatch between traditional higher education and the contemporary entrepreneurial impulse, as has been repeatedly articulated.

From Chris Dixon:

Some things we don’t need:

Expensive projects like big engineering universities. Again, the more engineers and CS programs in the US the better (even better yet we need more CS majors – which probably means more CS education in high school and earlier), but I can think of far more productive ways to spend $100M to help the NYC startup and tech world.

Fred Wilson‘s take is less critical:

The effort to build a world-class science and engineering campus is smart. Of course, we already have a number of great universities in the city, and these institutions are not sitting still. They are producing talented scientists and engineers in greater numbers every day.

The Bloomberg administration should also consider investing in science and engineering education in our public schools — particularly high schools — and the existing universities. We should be supporting what’s already working here in addition to building new institutions.

Even the almost-always-right Caterina Fake weighs in skeptically:

I’m skeptical that a science and engineering campus is what New York needs to become a technology powerhouse. Boston has not succeeded with that strategy.

Entrepreneurship cannot really be taught in a university setting — that is, a factory model. It’s learned by the apprenticeship model. Technology changes so fast. By the time someone becomes a professor, his or her industry knowledge is out of date. For young engineers and entrepreneurs, the only way to learn is by trying, failing, trying again until some great idea works.

Caterina’s quote comes from the New York Times debate on the the topic, in the context of whether New York City can rival Silicon Valley for tech entrepreneurship. But “Should NYC build a research university” and “Can NYC rival Silicon Valley for startups?” are two different questions.

And, notably, the second question is already answered: NYC already rivals Silicon Valley for startups, and from my admittedly-biased standpoint, it already exceeds Silicon Valley by the measure of how many meaningful startups are being founded at any given time.

What a School Does

If I didn’t go to college and I don’t significantly disagree with the descriptions of entrepreneurial attitudes to education as described by Chris, Caterina, and others, then why do I think we need a research university here in New York City?

Because research universities make innovators out of those who might otherwise never consider entrepreneurship. Though I hate to speak in generalities, there are some common traits from those who pursue advanced degrees in applied sciences, and chief among them is that they pursue their area of expertise to sometimes unfathomable levels of detail. While the passion required for such a pursuit is absolutely parallel to that required to create a startup, it’s seldom channeled into a compatible set of goals. And there are, simply put, disciplines where extensive post-secondary education is required in order to become competent as a practitioner — despite Chris Dixon’s skepticism about the need for a world-class research university in New York City, every single person listed on his startup Hunch’s team page has a “College Days” line in their bio describing their background in higher education.

More importantly, many of the cultures and countries which are producing the best technological talents (China and India, most notably) have cultures with a profoundly more respectful attitude towards education. Creative people who are creating brilliant innovations in those countries shouldn’t be asked to forgo the educational goals they value simply because a lot of rich, privileged Americans have been able to find success without it. Keep in mind: For every Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg whose success stories include the obligatory description of “college dropout”, we are glossing over the fact that they got accepted to Harvard in the first place, and made critical social and financial contacts in that context.
Because, for those whose families haven’t been in the United States for generations, or whose families are not from social classes with access to capital and influence, universities provide an incredible upgrade in the amount and quality of access that less privileged students can have.
Put more simply: If you’re super smart, are inventing the kind of technology that powers startups, and come from a background that’s not a privileged middle-class American family, then a university may be one of the most powerful tools to put you in contact with the social world that will help your business succeed. And hey, you might even learn something while you’re there.

What a City Should Do

Just as importantly, world-class universities encourage a mingling of classes, cultures and creativity outside of their walls, bringing their students and faculty in contact with leaders from government, business, and society. Has there ever been a major city that has regretted having another major university open up? Is it ever bad to have more students?

Surprisingly, some people think so. Peter Thiel just argued exactly that point against Vivek Wadhwa in a conversation that I found, frankly, absurd. It’s not surprising that someone who’s an extremist about the value of large institutions would feel that young people shouldn’t participate in a large institution. That’s Thiel’s reflexive reaction to lots of topics, and it’s not surprising it’s the one that he brings to this subject.


But the argument against the utility of a world-class university education is a position of privilege, the one that ignores that many people would not have access to the opportunity to excel without college providing them that opening. I know it’s true, because I know what I had to do to work around it, and even that was only possible because my parents valued education. Most of the doors that are open to me can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the work my father put into a career that began with his earning of a PhD at a great school.

It’s not about the school

I’m never going to enroll in an Applied Sciences university that opens in New York City, as far as I can see. I’ll be 100% supportive if my son chooses to go with an alternate path for educating himself. I certainly share many people’s misgivings about the brokenness in funding and financing for college education. But there are contexts and cultures that will only be attracted to entrepreneurship and innovation when introduced to it through the context of higher education. It doesn’t have to be in the classic model — I hope technology can reinvent education just as much as it’s reinvented so many other industries.

What we need most of all, though, is to broaden the definition of education, to encompass both traditional higher education processes as well as the do-it-yourself, trial-and-error initiative that’s so familiar to entrepreneurs. We don’t do that by pitting these two environments as opposing choices. We do that by recognizing that classrooms and startups are both great ways of teaching people.