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NY’s Research Institutions Must Keep Working Together in ‘19

Opinion

Xconomy New York — 

[Corrected, 1/7/19, 5:15 pm. See below.]

[Editor’s Note: Euan Robertson, the Director of Strategic Planning & Special Projects at Columbia Technology Ventures, co-wrote this article.] It is a commonly held belief that academic research institutions, including those in New York City, are fierce competitors. In some ways, that may be true: Universities battle with each other to matriculate the best students, attract and retain the world’s leading faculty, and win the most research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other federal agencies.

However, most New Yorkers may not realize that the City’s research institutions—including Columbia University (where we both work), NYU, The City University of New York, Cornell University, Rockefeller University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and others—have also become very tightly-knit collaborators. These institutions have increasingly worked together very closely to try to make NYC a true innovation ecosystem, rivaling or even someday surpassing the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston in many of the industries that are shaping our future economy.

As a former management consultant (Orin) and economic development strategist (Euan), we were both surprised to find this level of collaboration when we first joined Columbia. After all, academic institutions’ primary missions are generally to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and educate the next generation of productive members of society. Why would places like Columbia also put so much effort and energy into entrepreneurship and technology commercialization?

It wasn’t always this way. In the past, universities in general didn’t have an incentive to work together on commercializing the products that came from their research labs. Whether earned or not, there was even a perception amongst local venture capitalists and city leaders that the institutions were more focused on “protecting their turf.”

However, over the past decade or so, things have changed. Many of America’s leading universities have increasingly seen their role as not only generating breakthrough discoveries, but also ensuring that society benefits from those discoveries as quickly as possible. For instance, Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, last year launched Columbia World Projects, with the overarching mission of harnessing the broad capacities of the academic community to make a “positive impact on people’s lives and…guide the way to solutions to intractable problems.” And in New York specifically, the leadership of the different institutions began pushing to work with one another on complex scientific problems, hoping to maximize their ability to translate research discoveries—and build the state’s innovation ecosystem in the process. The New York Structural Biology Center, the New York Genome Center, and the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, for instance, emerged from broad academic partnerships.

Unfortunately, in the realm of technology transfer, many science-based innovations (such as those in therapeutics and diagnostics, medical devices, clean energy, and deep computing) are often raw when they leave the university research labs. To become products that make a positive impact on society, they must first cross the so-called “valley of death”, where most early-stage science-based innovations fail. Crossing the valley means tapping into a robust set of resources: money to prove out the science; advice and mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs, industry executives, and investors; serial entrepreneurs or industry leaders who can champion the technology; for startups, venture capital to start and scale the company; and if not a startup, then industry partners who can adopt the invention and bring it to the market.

It’s a daunting task for any one university to not just provide all of these resources, but also to find the right backers, at the right time, to move a potential product forward. And New York has historically struggled to change a key statistic: the VC investment in local startups as a ratio to the very high level of NIH funding going into the local institutions. This figure has lagged relative to other big hubs despite the region’s success in obtaining funding grants.

That’s a big reason why New York’s research institutions have banded together. Often in partnership with public agencies and nonprofits like the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), the Partnership for New York City, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the local institutions have collectively created lab-to-market technology accelerators such as PowerBridgeNY for energy; the NYC Media Lab Combine and NYC rLab for media and virtual & augmented reality technologies; and the soon-to-be-launched CyberNYC initiative. In life sciences, the collective institutions host a wide array of similar programs: BioMedX; the Translational Research Accelerator; the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute; the Robertson Fund; and more. We also work closely together to jointly host pitch days for venture investors, create educational content for entrepreneurs and technologists, run bootcamps for startups, and maintain a shared network of seasoned executives to provide advice or even join a startup as the founding CEO. [An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly referred to the Partnership for New York City as a public agency. It’s a private nonprofit organization. We regret the error.—Eds.]

Universities also provide employers with access to high-quality talent, both technical and general. Combined, it has been said that NYC’s higher education institutions have more students than Boston, for instance, has people. That talent base is a large part of what attracts companies to the region, including the recent Amazon announcement and the $1 billion expansion by Google announced this month. It also encourages startups to start and stay here.

The combined efforts of these institutions and our city and state partners is already starting to bear fruit. While clearly driven by many factors, NYC has become a thriving hub for tech. And while it is too early to declare victory, NYC’s biotech scene, which has struggled historically relative to rival hubs elsewhere, is starting to gain momentum as well, with university startups such as Kallyope, Quentis Therapeutics, Rgenix, Applied Therapeutics, Tara Biosystems, and others raising significant venture rounds while they start and grow in NYC. With over 60 new startups emerging from the city’s research institutions each year, the flow of promising new companies is stronger than ever. We look forward to seeing what exciting opportunities emerge in the year ahead!

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts sharing thoughts from industry and technology leaders about 2018 trends and forecasts for 2019.]