How to Start a Startup @ Cornell
Want to understand the potential of starting a company while at Cornell? Look no further than John Zimmer (SHA ’06), Co-Founder of Lyft. John found the inspiration for Lyft from a city planning course he took as an undergraduate student in the School of Hotel Administration. From TechCrunch:
“At Cornell John took a class called “Creating Green Cities and Sustainable Futures,” which was taught by Professor Robert Young. Over the course of the semester, Young walked students through changes in city infrastructure over the centuries and challenged them to imagine the future shifts necessary to make urban living sustainable.
One session focused on transportation and charted the different methods humans had used to get around throughout history, including canals, railroads and highways. In each case, those pathways spread like arteries tying different cities and towns together.
But physical infrastructure wasn’t the problem, as John saw it. As a student of the university’s School of Hotel Administration, the key metric he cared about was the occupancy rate of vehicles on the road. About three-quarters of all seats went unused, and he believed the key to solving the inefficiency problem was building out some sort of information infrastructure.”
Though he was enrolled as an undergraduate at the School of Hotel Administration, he was able to take other courses of interest across each of Cornell’s one of seven undergraduate colleges, such as the “Creating Green Cities” course. It allowed him to learn about things outside the bounds of his major, which ultimately led him to create a billion-dollar business!
Each of Cornell’s colleges offer students the opportunity to learn from world-renowned professors and researchers across topics in engineering, human ecology, agriculture & life sciences, and industrial & labor relations. Between Ithaca and the Cornell Tech campus in NYC, the environment at Cornell encourages students to engage in interdisciplinary studies and work in interdisciplinary teams, something shown to have a strong positive effect on team success.
But how does one take advantage of the unique interdisciplinary offerings available at Cornell to start companies? Once you have what you think is a rock solid idea, how do you take it to the next level? With that goal in mind, below I cover five key aspects of building your startup here: Getting Started, Coursework, Getting Involved with Entrepreneurship, Taking Your Idea to Market, and Funding Your Idea.
The gateway for all things entrepreneurship at Cornell is “Entrepreneurship at Cornell” (“E@C”), an umbrella organization that oversees and facilitates the majority of the entrepreneurial activity on campus. The team is located at Kennedy Hall, home to one of two new co-working spaces recently opened on campus. I recommend reaching out to any member of the team to set up a meeting, talk through your goals and ambitions, and let them guide you to the best opportunities. If your focus is hospitality, the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship is also a great resource that can connect you with resources related to that area. Join them for events, mentoring, and one of the jewel events of the year, the Hospitality Business Plan Competition ($25,000 First Prize)!
Though no course can truly teach you what life is like as an entrepreneur, taking coursework on the topic can better prepare you for the journey you are about to embark upon and improve your chances of success. Entrepreneurship at Cornell provides a comprehensive list of coursework, and below I highlight some student favorites (full descriptions accessible via the link above):
Entrepreneurship and Business Ownership (Johnson Graduate School of Management): Intense focus is placed on doing large amounts of customer development, building out a strong business plan, and working through the key aspects of envisioning, starting and running a new business.
Physical Product Entrepreneurship (Johnson Graduate School of Management): This course is appropriate for the student exploring the creation of a hardware startup as well as students pursuing a career in product management at a physical product company.
Entrepreneurship for Scientists and Engineers (Johnson Graduate School of Management): Work is focused on a single project: students form a startup team and follow a technical business idea of their own choosing through the process of developing and founding a business that can attract venture investors.
Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Engineering (Engineering School): A solid introduction to the entrepreneurial process to students in engineering.
Technology for Bootstrapped Entrepreneurship (School of Hotel Administration): This course prepares students who have entrepreneurial intentions through a process of identifying, evaluating, and designing cloud-based technology to enhance service delivery in either a for-profit or non-profit venture using a bootstrapped approach.
Women, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship (Johnson Graduate School of Management): Seminar that uses lectures, guest panels, and readings to focus on issues facing women (and their partners) in their business careers.
Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries (Johnson Graduate School of Management): The course is targeted towards students who wish to understand the structure of creative industries and be inspired to start, work or consult for, or invest in large and small creative, high-impact firms.
Getting Involved with Entrepreneurship
For undergrads, the Cornell Venture Capital Club is a great place to start. For grads, consider joining Big Red Ventures (discussed below) as an Associate to learn the nuts and bolts of VC through early-stage company creation and investing. If hackathons are more your thing, Cornell has hosted a number of those in both Ithaca and NYC on various topics including Animal Health, VR, and Health Tech. There’s a myriad of other opportunities in Ithaca and NYC.
Staying in the loop on entrepreneurial communications on campus is also important. Make sure you’re on the entrepreneurship list serve to keep you up to date with emails on upcoming events and other relevant happenings and opportunities on campus.
Taking Your Idea to Market
So you’ve taken some courses, really worked on your idea, and maybe found a co-founder or two — great! Now what? Well, there are a number of options for you, depending on the business you’re pursuing.
Established in 2008 by Student Agencies Foundation in collaboration with Entrepreneurship at Cornell, eLab has worked with hundreds of students in turning concepts into real businesses. The accelerator receives almost 60 applications each year from students and accepts anywhere from 10–15 companies into the program. Portfolio companies receive mentorship, access to Cornell’s new co-working space eHub, credit towards graduation, and initial grant funding. The Accelerator culminates with a Demo Day presentation at Cornell’s Entrepreneurship Celebration in Ithaca at the end of April.
Blackstone LaunchPad (“BLP”)
BLP, with their offices located in Kennedy Hall, is an initiative of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation that provides mentoring, coaching and resources for entrepreneurial students, faculty, staff and alumni. They offer free, confidential mentorship for individuals and startups at any stage in any industry, as well as access to a global network and other resources.
Rev is Ithaca’s center for growing ideas and launching businesses. Students pursuing hardware businesses can apply to Rev’s Summer Hardware Accelerator. Rev offers a deep dive into hardware through this 11-week accelerator — through the program, participants determine if their ideas are commercially desirable, technologically viable, and economically feasible.
A unique opportunity for Ph.D. students to spend a fully-funded semester and summer in an intensive entrepreneurship program with a personal mentor to explore commercializing a product of the student’s choosing. From intellectual property management to supply chains, students will learn the tools, methods and skills for bringing a product or technology to market.
The I-Corps Node program is designed to prepare participants to innovate and create beyond the academic sphere. Each year, the UNY I-Corps Node will recommend 20–30 teams to the National NSF program, where participants can receive $50K NSF funding and other opportunities.
Runway Startup Postdoc Program at Cornell Tech
The Runway Startup program targets recent PhD graduates looking to commercialize their research, which is generally around high-tech themes. The benefits of the Runway program are significant, with $175,000 in cash + in-kind benefits, access to equipment, mentorship and office space.
Helps young life sciences companies research and develop their products, validate their business plans, and strengthen their management teams.
Allows participating Cornell student and alumni startups access to $200,000+ worth of resources in exchange for no equity. With weekly group dinners, presentations from speakers, and an invite-only pitch day, startups in the incubator will become part of a strong entrepreneurial community.
Creates a network for founders, entrepreneurially-minded students, and mentors to connect. Designed as a platform for everything entrepreneurship, StartupTree also lists entrepreneurial internships, projects, and a resource section for everything from legal advice to market research
Aggregates Cornell alumni who have volunteered to connect with students for career conversations and more. Students who sign up for the service receive access to a network of alumni eager to offer advice for a student’s time at Cornell and beyond.
Funding Your Idea
In addition to funding provided by the accelerators and incubators discussed above, there are other ample fundraising sources available to Cornell student entrepreneurs.
Dorm Room Fund, of course! (“DRF”)
Dorm Room Fund backs student entrepreneurs with capital ($20,000 initial investment), resources (AWS credits, swag, etc.), and access to our incredible network of other student and alumni entrepreneurs and leaders in tech, VC and related industries. We’ve backed Cornell startups before, and are always looking for more!
BRV is a venture fund run by Johnson School MBA students. They back startups at various stages and in different sectors, generally with a focus on backing Cornell-affiliated entrepreneurs.
Red Bear Angels is a network of Cornell alums established independent of the University that back Cornell-founded startups. They have a great track record, as they’ve funded great Cornell startups like Lyft, ProducePay, and Datalogue.
Offers all Cornell sophomores funding to pursue “interesting, provocative, and entrepreneurial summer projects.” Winners can receive funding of up to $5,000.
Gives students up to $20,000 in funding, mentorship from faculty and social entrepreneurs, and unique coursework to solve a societal problem of interest. The program is offered through the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
Business Plan/Pitch Competitions
Cornell has a number of pitch competitions, some open entry and some by nomination. These are great opportunities to test your idea in front of accomplished investors and entrepreneurs, who often serve as judges for these competitions.
- Cornell Venture Challenge ($25,000 Grand Prize)
- Hospitality Business Plan Competition ($25,000 Grand Prize)
- Big Idea Competition ($9,000 in total prizes)
- NYC Entrepreneurship Summit ($5,000 Grand Prize)
- Student Startup of the Year (Nomination required, $5,000 Prize)
Cornell continues to invest in and grow its entrepreneurial ecosystem, both in NYC and Ithaca. College is the best time to start a business, and Cornell has ample resources to help you succeed. I hope some of you will find this post useful, and always feel free to reach out to me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A special thank you to leaders in the Cornell Entrepreneurial community for sharing their thoughts on this post, especially Zach Shulman (Director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell), Tom Schryver (Executive Director for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell University), and Ken Rother (Managing Director of the eLab Accelerator) for their comments and feedback. Additional thanks to Fred Kauber, a sophomore double-majoring in Applied Economics & Management and Information Science and journalist for the Entrepreneurship@Dyson publication, for his contributions to this article.
 In addition to the offerings on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, the new, growing Cornell Tech campus in NYC (slated to open on Roosevelt Island in Fall 2017), presents an even greater opportunity for students to pursue entrepreneurial ventures with significant resources available to them. An entire post could be focused on the Cornell Tech ecosystem, but this post will generally focus on opportunities at Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, with some references to Cornell Tech offerings.