The Startup Campus Comes to MetroTech Center

Musicians. Artists. Filmmakers. Entrepreneurs. What do they have in common? A thirst for innovation, no matter if it’s cinematic, painterly, or technological in form.

Their quest culminated last month during the Northside Festival, the annual celebration of the arts organized by Northside Media Group, publisher of Brooklyn and L magazines. Honoring the spirit of imagination that underpins all creative endeavors, the festival this year introduced a two-day Entrepreneurship Festival, which paid homage to New York’s lengthening Silicon Alley through panel discussions and exhibitions at its 40,000-square-foot factory space in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

The Entrepreneurship Festival wasn’t rooted to one place, though. Festivalgoers were also invited to board a shuttle to the downtown Brooklyn campus of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, site of the festival’s first-ever Startup Campus, a series of seminars that examined the integral relationship between higher education and entrepreneurial ventures. Cosponsored by NYU, NYU-Poly, and the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), an applied science research institute recently formed by the two schools, the Startup Campus featured conversations between such stars of the entrepreneurial firmament as Scott Lamb, managing editor at BuzzFeed; Vlad Vukicevic, cofounder of Rocket Hub; Nick Fortugno, cofounder and COO of Playmatics, as well as representatives from the academic community. 

If the connection between academia and entrepreneurship wasn’t immediately clear to festivalgoers, Frank Rimalovski, managing director of NYU Innovation Fund, offered an explanation. “There’s this kind of symbiotic relationship where universities create entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs create universities,” he said.

Using Facebook and Dell as examples of companies that had their start at universities and which later gave back to schools — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously donated $100 million to public schools in Newark, New Jersey — Rimalovski saw no reason why the same couldn’t happen in New York City. 

“A lot of great startups just come of dorm rooms,” said Fred Wilson, who joined Rimalovski on stage at NYU-Poly’s Pfizer Auditorium, where the two convened to discuss the intersection between academia and startup economies. 

Wilson knows the subject well. As founder of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm in New York City, he’s overseen the funding of Brooklyn-based tech wunderkinds Etsy and Foursquare, which grew out of cofounder Dennis Crowley’s graduate thesis for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “Getting students connected to the startup community is a big personal goal of mine,” said Wilson. “Just to get the students aware of what’s going on around them and to create the higher probability of the right people meeting the right people at the right time.”

That kind of connectivity is important because universities “still struggle with creating an environment that takes intellectual property and does something useful with it,” said Kurt Becker, NYU-Poly associate provost for research and technology initiatives. “One of the challenges for universities is to create an environment that allows faculty, students, the entire community to take that breakthrough to the next level.”

Moderating a panel titled “Product Development: The New Makers of Things,” Becker observed that “the buzzword everywhere is ‘innovation.’ The key question is, ‘How can we do this?’”

“It’s really about the people who have the vision and passion to make it happen,” Rimalovski said, though other ideas and answers continued to bubble up during the festival. 

While no one answer may have been possible (or desirable), the festival’s inquisitive and enthusiastic air paired well with the intrinsically curious, questing environment of university settings. Indeed, that spirit seemed to invigorate NYU-Poly senior and president of the school’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Association (EIA) Derrick Hsiou, who approached Wilson after the event and asked if the funder would support EIA’s summer incubation program. Making good on his word to invest in students and startups, Wilson agreed, perhaps laying the seed for the next Facebook or Foursquare.