More than 150 Columbia Business School alumni, students, faculty and staff members, and friends gathered together in midtown last month to hear entrepreneurship expert Steve Blank, a retired serial startup founder and current Columbia University Senior Fellow for Entrepreneurship, discuss New York City’s entrepreneurship scene as part of “Hacking NYC: Beyond the Rise of the NYC Startup Ecosystem.” The event shed light on the creation of the city’s entrepreneurial culture, its future prospects, and its applicability to other cities hoping to spark innovation and create jobs.
“I had a little bit of FOMO in that I never took Steve Blank’s class when I was at Columbia, and I wanted to hear him talk,” says attendee Alexis Beechen ’15, whose startup, Mangrove Estates, aims to sell wine in alternative packaging — think cans and mini-kegs — and is in the Columbia Startup Lab. “It’s also super important to be a part of the community. You never know who you’ll meet.”
The event’s three-person panel featured Blank; Maria Gotsch, president and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City; and Maria Torres-Springer, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It was moderated by Orin Herskowitz, vice president of intellectual property and tech transfer for Columbia University, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, and an adjunct professor at the School.
“It’s really an amazing time in New York,” said Herskowitz. “Columbia Tech Ventures has gone from five patent-backed startups per year in 2007 to 27 last year, with an increasing number choosing to start and stay here in the city.”
Blank pointed out that several factors have contributed to the proliferation of entrepreneurship in New York. “One thing that’s changed is New York City didn’t used to be a risk center, so it was hard to find investors,” he said. But venture capital has come calling in the past few years and “really started to take risks on investing in startups.” Additionally, government funding “can help engineer entrepreneurship ecosystems,” Blank said. In fact, it was government support that created Stanford University’s entrepreneurial culture, he pointed out: after World War II, the government began actively funding engineering innovation at Stanford in the hopes that it would result in better military products. This is happening now in New York: the New York City Economic Development Council estimates that there are over 100 entrepreneurship incubators in New York today, many of which are run by Blank’s fellow panelists.
The panel was also tasked with looking ahead and trying to answer the question: can New York City’s entrepreneurship ecosystem be replicated elsewhere?
The answer was a resounding yes. “The ecosystem can be taught,” Blank stressed. Investors can limit the risk from each individual venture by widening their nets, while would-be entrepreneurs should always bear in mind that with “a startup, there is no predecessor: failure is therefore integral to the job,” Blank said.
“Just hearing Steve talk about the risk culture and that it’s okay to fail is always a nice reminder as you’re going through the weeds as an entrepreneur,” Beechen says.