How an Israeli school was a magnet for Amazon choosing New York

Cornell Tech's Roosevelt Island campus will supply the talent for the retail giant's new headquarters.

After the Wall Street crisis of 2008 hit New York hard, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was looking to diversify the Big Apple's economy by transforming it into a haven for the tech industry. One of his first initiatives was a 2010 contest to find a new college that would serve as the epicenter for this tech boom. The winner was Cornell Tech, a joint collaboration between Cornell University and Israel's Technion Institute.

The school opened in 2014 in temporary quarters courtesy of Google's Manhattan offices, as construction began on the state-of-the-art campus on Roosevelt Island, a narrow strip of land between Manhattan and Queens. It also happens to be located directly across from Amazon’s future home in Long Island City.

Indeed, while touring the future site of their new headquarters, Amazon execs took the ferry from Long Island City to the Roosevelt Island campus to visit the school. As the New York Times noted, Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean of Cornell Tech, sits on Amazon’s board. The school, which graduates students with high-tech degrees, is seen by many as a potential feeder to Amazon's New York workforce.

In a similar vein, a nearby high-tech campus is thought to be one of the reasons Amazon chose Northern Virginia for the second location of their new headquarters. Virginia Tech is currently constructing a new billion-dollar "Innovation Campus" just a few miles from Amazon’s new location in Arlington.

An op-ed in Cornell's daily student newspaper sang the praises of Amazon's New York choice. "This move opens the door to exciting new academic and commercial possibilities for students and faculty at Tech, and will no doubt launch the nascent graduate school to the top of any potential applicant’s list.... Cornell Tech advertises itself as the place to be for [the] entrepreneurially minded STEM student, and such close proximity to the world’s second-largest company — a tech one, at that — is an incalculable asset to the institution."

What's more, the joint university is specifically geared toward turning research into new businesses, an area that would be of keen interest to Amazon. “From Cornell's perspective, with Israel’s reputation as the ‘Startup Nation’ and the Technion’s history of producing the country’s leading tech entrepreneurs, there was a common vision for Cornell Tech," Adam Shwartz, who helped launch the school, told From The Grapevine. The campus is projected to generate 600 startup companies over the next three decades. One group of students has already invented a mouthpiece that allows quadriplegics to use their tongue to control devices.

Companies like Google and AOL have invested in the school. In addition, the students have built new tech products for Verizon and Weight Watchers. The success of Cornell Tech in such a short amount of time has already inspired Israel's Technion Institute to build a similar campus in Asia. Last year saw the grand opening of the Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology in China.

If the new school follows the lead of Cornell Tech, students from the Chinese campus will travel to Israel to spend time at the Technion's campus in Haifa. The Technion was recently ranked first worldwide in preparing students for a “digital revolution," in a recent survey published in Times Higher Education. In another new report, the Technion was ranked the No. 14 best school for entrepreneurs.

This is not the first time that the U.S.-based Amazon has looked to Israel for talent. The e-tailer recently announced the opening of two R&D centers in Israel – one in Tel Aviv and the other in Haifa. The labs, which will employ about 100 engineers, will work exclusively on the company’s Alexa voice-operated device. In addition to the two new R&D centers, Amazon acquired an Israeli startup called Annapurna Labs in 2015. That company makes computer hardware, specifically the kind used in cloud services, which has become one of the biggest drivers of Amazon's success. That's welcome news for many Israeli-based tech companies like Moovit, GetTaxi, Wix, Viber and Glide that use Amazon's web services to help run their businesses.

As for Cornell Tech, the school recently gave degrees to its first graduating class. For now, it's a relatively small school – with only 300 students last year. But the school has grand plans for growth. At the moment, only a few buildings have been erected on the campus. By 2043, the plan is for two million square feet of buildings to be built to house a student population of 2,000 – all of whom may be hopping on the ferry for internships at Amazon.

As the students wrote in their op-ed, "Amazon has much to offer Cornell Tech, but Cornell Tech has just as much to offer Amazon."


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How an Israeli school was a magnet for Amazon choosing New York
Cornell Tech's Roosevelt Island campus will supply the talent for the retail giant's new headquarters.