Columbia University Startup Lab Coming to WeWork SoHo West

Summer in the city will see a new home emerge for entrepreneurs to get dirty and gritty, working on their ideas.

Come June, a lab for New York startups founded by Columbia University grads will open its doors, says Richard Witten, special advisor to the university’s president. Mentors and programs drawn from university and alumni resources, he says, will offer the startup teams guidance to grow.

Witten says entrepreneurship is kind of a code-word for problem solving, an area that research universities such as Columbia specialize in. He sees the forthcoming lab as way to put the school’s prowess to work, helping homegrown startups create solutions that become businesses.

Once it’s running, the lab will feature programs on matters that effect startups, such as how to draft founders’ agreements and deal with immigration law. “Many graduate engineering school students, not just at Columbia, are here on a visa and do not have permanent rights to stay,” Witten says. “How do they start a business? Can they start a business [here]?”

Work is underway to turn some 5,100 sq. ft. on the ground floor of 175 Varick Street into the lab. The space had been used by WeWork for certain headquarters operations; the floors above will still be occupied by WeWork Soho West. “There are 1,200 individual entrepreneurs in that building,” says Chris McGarry, director of entrepreneurship with Columbia’s office of alumni and development.

The plan is, he says, to integrate the lab into the WeWork ecosystem. Columbia alumni at the site will be able to take advantage of programs offered at the building through WeWork, he says. The university plans to eventually open up its own programs to the other startups at the location.

This is one of the recent efforts by local universities to cultivate and focus their resources in New York’s startup scene. The folks at New York University, for example, have a lab of their own in the works for entrepreneurship.

The Columbia lab will have more than 70 seats will available for startups to occupy, Witten says, which translates into room for about 15 to 25 teams. Most of the startups will have up to three people onboard though a few might top out at five. As the startups fill out their teams, they will likely leave the nest, McGarry says.

Columbia plans to establish standards to gauge the progress of the startups at the lab, Witten says, to encourage momentum. The teams will rent space on a 12-month term, which they can reapply for, but the university will be mindful to make room for newcomers. “Even though you’re paying rent, if you do nothing for six months, we may strongly urge you to look elsewhere for your space,” Witten says.

The creation of the lab is partially a response to recent changes in the way research gets supported in this country. In the past, Witten says, sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and private foundations provided considerable funding for “pure” research projects. “The amount of funding for those things is drying up very substantially,” he says.

Witten sees money from those types of sources going towards ideas that have more immediate applications rather than somewhat open-ended research. That has changed the approach of schools such as Columbia, he says. “We have to think about how our knowledge will impact the world.”

At the same time, building an entrepreneurial community is not just about birthing the next Facebook. Teaching skills for solving complicated issues is also important—which is where research universities such as Columbia come in. “Who else can figure out climate change?” Witten asks. “No company can do it, no single think-tank can do it. We’re here to help people solve all sorts of problems.”

He says many graduating students going into the workforce are interested in creating their own opportunities rather than working for large companies, so Columbia wants to help them figure out how best to do that. Courses in entrepreneurship are available, but Witten says more can be done. “These are things that need a lab,” he says. “They can’t just be taught in a classroom.”

The university will not take equity in the startups at the lab, Witten says. The teams will pay highly subsidized rent to make sure they have some skin the game. The downtown lab will also push these grads to seek expertise beyond their own academic disciplines to staff their startups. “It’s a forced statement that you have to work outside of your silo,” Witten says.

More than 200 applications from startups are being reviewed to join the lab; some teams that include non-Columbia affiliated members might be accepted, McGarry says.

The teams will need to prove there is some traction already for their ideas, he says, which can include having a beta product. The applications are being reviewed based largely on the likelihood that the startups can grow into real businesses.

Witten expects many of the startups will develop ideas in social media technology and mobile apps. He says it is unlikely that biotech or wet-lab-related startups will call the lab home since it will not have the kind of facilities they need.

While the lab downtown will work with young alumni, plans are also in the works to create a similar lab near the university for current students, Witten says. He believes the varied mix of ideas and businesses in the city make it ripe for startups of many different stripes to emerge here.

“Because we’re Columbia and this is New York,” Witten says, “it will probably look more diversified than if we were in Palo Alto. We love the notion entrepreneurship doesn’t just mean computer science-oriented stuff.”

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