Why Entrepreneurship at Columbia?

Faculty Director Olivier Toubia explains why Columbia University is, and should be, the place for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world.
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When Dean Hubbard asked me to join the Lang Center as Faculty Director, he charged me to focus my efforts on two main areas: help to structure and organize the entrepreneurship curriculum, and increase the School’s ties within the larger University. The pursuit of these objectives has given me a new appreciation for the numerous Entrepreneurship-related resources available at Columbia University, and convinced me that Columbia has the potential to own a unique and important place in Entrepreneurship. Columbia is, and should be, the place for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world.

But why Columbia? What differentiates us from other prestigious universities, some of which with an even stronger tradition of entrepreneurship and innovation? Two particular recent experiences have convinced me that Columbia can credibly differentiate itself from its peers and “own” this positioning of being the place for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world.

First, I started teaching a new course, Research to Revenue, which explores innovation opportunities that come out of scientific research. Students are exposed to cutting-edge research in relevant fields (e.g., Life Sciences, Energy, Data Science) and learn tools and frameworks for turning scientific research into commercial products. The course is a synergetic effort between the Business School and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science – my co-instructor, Professor Sam Sia, is a leading scholar in Biomedical Engineering, an entrepreneur, the founder of the Harlem Biospace, and a co-director of the SEAS Entrepreneurship Program. Projects were proposed by Engineering students who had developed intellectual property, typically in the course of their academic research at Columbia. I will never forget the first day of classes, in which Engineering students pitched their inventions to Business students. I was simply blown away by the breadth and gravity of the problems they were trying to solve: better treatments against cancer, more energy efficient buildings, reduction of infection in food processing. Many of their inventions were protected by patents or trade secrets, creating the potential for a sustainable competitive advantage.

Second, outside of the classroom I serve on the Executive Committee of the Data Science Institute, which has opened my eyes to some of the cutting-edge work of world-class Columbia University faculty and students. Data science is being leveraged throughout campus to confront extremely complex problems like city planning and urban development, trade laws, cryptography and cybersecurity, and biomedical engineering. (Visit the Data Science Institute’s website for a showcase of Data Science research throughout campus.)

These two experiences served as reminders for me of what makes Columbia so great and unique. A large Ivy League university with an amazing breadth of expertise (world-class Business School, Law School, Medical School, Journalism School, Engineering School, School of International and Public Affairs, to name just a few); all in one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in the world. I could not think of a better place for budding entrepreneurs interested in tackling big, challenging, societal problems. Entrepreneurs in New York City have access to “target customers” for almost any market – whether they want to solve problems for rich or poor people, for highly-educated or under-educated people, for immigrants, baby boomers, millennials, etc. They have access to investors, customers, and partners who represent any country in the world, from the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. In addition, students here have the opportunity to network and collaborate with experts who have cutting-edge knowledge across an amazing breadth of fields and topics. In my mind, all of this makes Columbia the place for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world.

How will we reinforce this position? The Lang Center will continue to do its share by helping connect students, scholars, and alumni from various parts of campus and enable them to tackle challenging problems. Senior director Vincent Ponzo, the entire staff of the Center, and I will continue to promote courses that open our students to opportunities that go beyond their immediate worlds and connections. For example, Professor Sheena Iyengar will co-teach a new course this summer, Think Bigger, that will train students to come up with “big ideas.” In addition to menus of courses for students who already have an idea they want to pursue, who want to join existing entrepreneurial ventures or who want to invest in startups, we will continue developing a menu of courses for students interested in identifying big opportunities and thinking entrepreneurially.

I am excited and honored to be part of the Lang Center, in Columbia Business School, in Columbia University.

About the researcher

Olivier Toubia

Olivier Toubia is the Glaubinger Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. His research focuses on various aspects of innovation, including preference measurement and...

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