New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), on Tuesday, announced an ambitious plan for New York City to regain its historic role as “the technology capital of the United States — and the world” — and eclipse Silicon Valley. He is offering subsidized real estate and $100 million in infrastructure upgrades to any institution, university or consortium that builds a world-class science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, Governors Island or Brooklyn Navy Yard. Bloomberg projects that, within the first 30 years, this school will spin-off 400 new companies and create more than 22,000 permanent jobs.
Bloomberg has the right idea, but he’s going about it the wrong way. The mayor should indeed improve New York’s crumbling infrastructure, but the key to building innovation is not a new educational institution — it’ll take much more. If the presence of world-class universities could provide New York with a substantial advantage, then, as I’ve written before, Silicon Valley wouldn’t have left Boston’s Route 128 in the dust. And New York would not have raced ahead of Boston to become the second largest recipient of venture-capital funds in the United States, placing behind California.
Route 128 is in close proximity to some of the best universities in the world: Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale just to name a few. And it benefitted from its proximity to the East Coast industrial centers. And as recently as 1980, Silicon Valley was considered to be Route 128’s poor cousin. But the Valley raced ahead of Boston toward the end of the decade. This was because of the Valley’s culture of informality, risk-taking and information sharing. Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem developed sophisticated professional networks that supported experimentation and collective learning. This was due, in part, to the Valley becoming the place where skilled immigrants flocked, founding slightly over 52 percent of its companies from 1995 to 2005.
Diversity, however, is not New York’s problem. Immigrants founded 44 percent of its start-ups. The problem lies here: Only 21 percent of the graduates of New York’s state universities start their companies there; instead they move elsewhere. Contrast this with California, where 69 percent of graduates start their companies. Meanwhile, the national average is 45 percent. What good is it going to do for New York City if the graduates of its new science and technology university move away after graduation?
The bad news for New York doesn’t end with the graduates. In Silicon Valley, you come across many entrepreneurs who left New York for greener pastures, but very few move from the Valley to New York, or from anywhere else.
Additionally, one of the greatest challenges for New York entrepreneurs is that they have to compete with the financial sector for talent. For the investment banks, money is no object; they can offer hefty salaries and six-figure bonuses to anyone they want to hire. When times are good for finance, it crowds out the technology industry. Indeed, the current crop of hot tech start-ups, like Foursquare, Boxee and Hunch, were founded when the economy was beginning to slide or had already reached record lows.
I have written before that cluster efforts, such as the one Bloomberg is attempting to create in New York, never produce the intended result: greater innovation. But there is still hope for New York. If I were to make a wager, I would put my money on New York as the one region able to rival Silicon Valley in the future. New York is dynamic and richly diverse. With that in mind, here’s what I propose: Instead of using the $100 million to build a new university, use the money to seed start-ups, or educate the underprivileged to become entrepreneurs.
Mayor Bloomberg also had it right when he called on lawmakers to open the doors to skilled immigrants. He needs to keep up the pressure. New York needs as many of these immigrants as it can get. The Empire State also needs to understand and fix a system that fails to retain its graduates who could found their companies in New York.
New York already has very good universities like Columbia, Cornell, New York University, State University of New York, City University of New York and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Cornell, CUNY and NYU are all investigating whether to throw their hat in the ring for Bloomberg’s offer. But the reason more start-ups aren’t created is because, as I’ve written before, the overall university research commercialization system needs to improve; it is designed to disseminate knowledge in the form of academic papers, not to create start-ups. The mayor could mandate that all university research in state-funded schools be made available for free to any start-up that locates, and remains, in New York. The license revenue that universities obtain is so small that this won’t make a dent.
Most important, New York should create the types of social networks that define Silicon Valley. The mayor can’t create these networks, but entrepreneurs can. It could be argued, they have a more important role to play in New York’s tech revival than the mayor does.