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Entrepreneurship in NYC: Interview with David Lerner of Columbia University Tech Ventures

Entrepreneurship in NYC: Interview with David Lerner of Columbia University Tech Ventures

Aug 12, 2010

Oftentimes, the Big Apple – the city seemingly perfect for entrepreneurs – gets lost from view behind the Charging Bull of Wall Street.  But today is different.  The Big Entrepreneurial Opportunity of NYC is back, a change that’s underpinned not least by the burgeoning entrepreneurial environments in universities across the city.

In this interview we’re going to hear from a champion of this movement, David B. Lerner, the Director of the Venture Lab at Columbia University Tech Ventures, who was recently named by Silicon Valley Insider one of the “top 100 most influential New Yorkers in the digital business community”.


MITER: David, you are known to be an advocate of university entrepreneurship, arguing that it’s an increasingly important global phenomenon.  What makes this phenomenon an important one?

David Lerner: Over the last 10-15 years it has become more and more acceptable for entrepreneurship to flourish on university campuses. Administrations, faculty and tech transfer professionals within the academy have begun to realize just how well-suited the university setting is for the incubation of new ventures. They have seen first-hand the benefits of successful spin-outs and student-led ventures to the reputation of their schools – just think of what Facebook did for Harvard or Google for Stanford. Universities may well now be the greatest breeding ground our society provides for a new class of emerging entrepreneurial talent to experiment and try new things that can lead to the formation of valuable technologies, teams and products. Not only do you have deep resources of intellectual capital on campus but you also have that essential raw human capital – a deep pool of talented, committed students, researchers, professors and the like who can play a central role in driving this phenomenon. Student entrepreneurship in particular is an emerging colossus. I have written about this phenomenon here.


MITER: Do you see a pattern in the kinds of startups being launched from schools (for example, in terms of industry orientation)?

David Lerner: It depends. For students, internet startups are a natural fit. Now they cost almost nothing to build, host, launch, and market.  Juggernauts like Facebook, Google and Yahoo started out in informal, dorm room-type settings as “projects” for exactly this reason. Then of course we have the practice of spinning-out cutting-edge technology, medical device and biotech companies from university labs. Annually, there are 600+ spinoffs emerging from American universities nation-wide. At the Venture Lab at Columbia Tech Ventures, for example, we spun-off 13 companies last year and have produced well over 100 historically, 20 of which have been sold or gone public, 30+ of which have been venture-backed at some point in their life cycle. These run the gamut from software security to natural language processing, to biotech, to smart grid and clean energy plays. They are as varied and diverse as the many academic departments at the university.


MITER: You wrote previously about what universities can do to support entrepreneurship institutionally.  What do you think universities can do more to support student entrepreneurs on a more personal level – for example, personal and professional development, funding, etc?

David Lerner: I really think it is incumbent on university administrations to take notice of this emerging colossus and encourage student entrepreneurship. It should be part of the educational mission – to empower and educate its students and best prepare them for life. Therefore, setting up dedicated venture labs (of the sort we have at Columbia and many other schools now including Georgia Tech, UPenn, Utah, ASU, Michigan, etc.) is the way to go in my view. This is a resource for students (and of course faculty) that gives them access to mentors, advice, contacts and general shaping of their entrepreneurial vision. In my view this is as important as a Career Office!


MITER: Finally, you’re based in NYC.  Tell us about the university entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Big Apple.  What startups emerging out of that ecosystem are you excited about?

David Lerner:  New York City/Silicon Alley is absolutely on fire and is just an incredible atmosphere in which to be working.  There has been an incredible surge of late in angel investing, a plethora of micro-VC’s like Founder Collective have cropped up almost overnight and a good number of Boston and Valley funds are spending more and more time here. Polaris, First Round, True Ventures, Flybridge, Floodgate and many others are spending lots of time with us. For more detail, you can reference my map of the early-stage ecosystem in Silicon Alley and elsewhere.

The Universities have been stepping up in a big way of late as well. At Columbia, our tech transfer office (CTV) has a dedicated Venture Lab that I operate, which I have described above. We hold entrepreneur office hours for the whole Columbia community, host entrepreneurial lecture series and work very closely with the angel, venture and entrepreneurial communities in the city. An example of a very promising student venture is Brooklyn-based Bamboo Bike Studio run by the super-talented Marty Odlin. We also have some really exciting portfolio companies that have spun-out from our labs recently such as Dygest, Vizio Medical Devices, NLP International, and Calm Energy.

At Columbia Business School we have the exceptional Lang Entrepreneurship Center and Lang Fund programs which have produced such high-flyers as Recycle Bank and others in recent years. We also have the emergence of HackNY, a collaboration between Columbia Professor Chris Wiggins and NYU’s Evan Korth. HackNY has been hosting student hackathons and is dedicated to getting talented students jobs in the startup world as opposed to Wall Street. Our engineering school also has a dedicated center for engaged entrepreneurship called CTICE as well as business plan competitions, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and other offerings.

NYU too is doing great things and has a brand new fund run by Frank Rimalovski specifically to invest in NYU startups. Professor Evan Korth is doing some amazing work with students there as well. You may, for example, have heard the enormous buzz surrounding Diaspora, in which a few NYU undergraduates hacked together an open source alternative to Facebook and raised well over one hundred thousand on Kickstarter (another NYC startup), in a matter of weeks.

Lastly I would add that grassroots entrepreneurial groups such as the Columbia Venture Community (1400+ members) and the NYU Venture Community have been enormously successful in holding pitch events, incubation events, entrepreneur cocktail events, etc. They recently joined forced to hold a terrific Startup Job Fair in downtown Manhattan for students from both schools.

Make no mistake – we still have a lot of work to do, but as you can see, things are really moving in the right direction and we have enormous momentum right now.


More about David B. Lerner:

Dave is a New York-based Entrepreneur, Angel Investor and Board Member of New York Tech Meetup. As the Director of the Venture Lab at Columbia University Tech Ventures, he has spun-off 50+ start-ups based on university intellectual property. His personal blog, www.davidblerner.com, explores the worlds of university entrepreneurship, angel/venture investing, and startups. Dave is the Organizer of the New York Venture Community, serves on the Board of Columbia’s Venture Community and is Resident Venture Advisor and Board Member to the Lang Center for Entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. He is also a frequent contributor to peHub and HuffPo.

You can visit his blog or follow him on Twitter here.