Columbia entrepreneurs may soon have access to a permanent collaborative space on campus, following the success of a summer lab space.
Over the summer, the Business School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science launched Columbia Entrepreneurs Lab, a program for students and faculty to work on startups in space with other entrepreneurs.
Now, the leaders of that initiative are trying to create a similar space open to students during the school year.
The summer program, facilitated by Barbara Roberts and Derek Lee, CC ’08, provided office space, matched student participants up with mentors and organized workshops in Uris Hall to help the entrepreneurs further their projects.
A variety of startups enrolled in the lab, including a recipe search engine application for smartphones, an online marketplace for private tutoring, and the Big Roundtable, the brainchild of Journalism School professor Michael Shapiro that provides a digital platform for long-form journalism.
“We saw a tremendous amount of collaboration,” Roberts said.
One of the biggest benefits of the lab, she said, was that it gave young entrepreneurs credibility in the business world.
“Starting a business where you’re meeting in the Columbia library or you’re meeting in the deli is one thing, but being accepted into a space that was clearly identified as the Columbia Entrepreneurs Lab added to the cache, the credibility, the belief that the people who were in the lab were really starting businesses of substance,” Roberts said.
While it was originally intended just for Business School students, the summer program provided a space for Columbia undergraduates and graduate students from other schools as well—thanks to additional funding from Columbia College and the School of Journalism.
“What started out to be a pretty good program for the Business School students ended up being a great program because we were able to bring that diversity of perspectives into the room,” Chris McGarry, the director of entrepreneurship at Columbia’s alumni relations department, said.
Jesse Michels, CC ’14, was one of the few undergraduates who worked in the lab. His team founded Sprawler, a news aggregator service that allows users to stream their favorite content on one page.
“While you’re consuming your own news, you’re also curating it—it’s kind of like Spotify for news,” Michels said. “The vision is to make news really fun and exciting so we can get people who are really frustrated and detached to re-engage.”
Michels found the mentors and the collaborative aspect of the lab to be helpful.
“It was just a very loose, fun, cool environment,” Michels said of the lab. “I was lucky to be there, especially considering my age.”
Just last week, participants met for a final time to present progress on their startups. Michels hopes to keep in touch with his fellow entrepreneurs.
“I got a lot of numbers, business cards, and I’ll definitely stay in touch with everyone,” he said. “I definitely want these to be lasting relationships.”
Interest in entrepreneurship is up on Columbia’s campus—University President Lee Bollinger’s office has started its own program to promote Columbia entrepreneurs.
After the economic meltdown in 2008, many students realized “that jobs in the traditional places of financial services may not happen,” Roberts said.
And having a co-working space, where different entrepreneurs can collaborate and share ideas, is critical to entrepreneurs’ success, the lab’s leaders say.
“Entrepreneurship is hard,” McGarry said. “It’s long, lonely hours. To have an opportunity to sit in the same room with like-minded people is important.”
McGarry now wants the lab to be a lasting space on campus—he and David Lerner, an adjunct professor at the Business School, are “looking at our own budgets and seeing if there’s an opportunity to find something that fits the bill.”
Though Columbia Entrepreneurs Lab will serve as a model, the permanent space—also in Uris—will be much bigger and offer more resources.
“The creature comforts were pretty sparse” over the summer, McGarry said, although “we don’t necessarily need a Google-like campus,” he added.
Roberts said she thought that participants in the Columbia Entrepreneurs Lab would embrace a permanent incubator space on campus.
“There certainly was a feeling from everyone connected—from the participants to the mentors to everyone in contact with the space—that there is the need for a full-time space like this at the University,” Roberts said.