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Innovators at work and in the classroom

The New Manhattan Project

Cornell's dean develops a Big Apple curriculum.

Existing faculty research links with the Technion facilitate the U.S.-Israeli joint venture, says Lance Collins.By Thomas K. Grose

Cornell University’s College of Engineering is home to around 500 faculty and teaching staff, 3,051 undergraduates, and 1,426 graduate students. If that didn’t keep Dean Lance Collins busy enough, these days he spends a fair amount of time in New York City, some 220 miles southeast of Cornell’s upstate campus. Not that he’s complaining, mind you.

That’s because in December, a partnership between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won a fiercely contested global competition run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to develop and build a $2 billion graduate school of engineering and applied sciences on 11 acres of Roosevelt Island, in the middle of New York’s East River. Collins was a key member of the team — led by Cornell President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs — that put together the winning bid over nine months of secretive strategizing with their Technion counterparts and, in a triumphant coup, secured $350 million from a billionaire Cornell alumnus.

Groundbreaking won’t start until 2015, but Cornell and Technion officials have pledged that the school will open its doors in temporary digs this coming September. The looming deadline presents Team Cornell with a huge logistical challenge, and Collins is its point man in setting up the academic program.

While keeping to that fast-paced schedule is paramount, he says, “what’s critical is bringing the quality of the Ithaca campus to this new engineering school, and keeping to the same top standards.” The curriculum is being decided jointly by Cornell and Technion, which are shaping it to fit the school’s remit –and Bloomberg’s vision – to act as an economic development engine that spins off technology-driven companies suited to New York’s big-city environment. It will be based around three interdisciplinary hubs with huge commercial potential: healthcare, connected media, and urban infrastructure. But the hubs are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate demand from other industries and changing economics, Collins says. “We aren’t going to try to pick winners and losers.”

Come fall, between 10 and 20 Cornell and Technion faculty members will set up shop in New York, while the first students will be transfers from Ithaca. The school will enroll its first students next January. Ultimately, the campus will house 200 to 250 faculty, including core faculty, as well as researchers with joint appointments to both Ithaca and Haifa, and visiting faculty. Enrollment will eventually hit 2,000 to 2,500. Cornell also wants to tap into its vast alumni base in the city and link researchers and students with mentors from the business and technology worlds.

Cornell is a 147-year-old Ivy League school, and its COE has a strong history of doing blue-sky research. The Technion, home to three Nobel Prize winners, has been particularly adept at transferring technology and talent to successful start-ups. (See “Impatience and Invention,” Prism, November 2008). Collins says that working with a university that has a different culture and is 6,000 miles away is proving easy, mainly because Cornell faculty had already forged dozens of collaborative links with Technion researchers. Moreover, he adds, both schools have a shared vision that the Manhattan school should be unique, and not a carbon copy of either of its progenitors.

Collins, who earned degrees in chemical engineering from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, became Cornell’s engineering dean in mid-2010, after a stint as head of the college’s mechanical engineering and aerospace department. Technion also has a strong reputation for aerospace research, but initially the New York school will create start-ups that don’t require large manufacturing facilities in a city where rents are high and space is tight. In time, Collins hopes that spinoff companies that do need more factory space might set up manufacturing operations in and around Ithaca. Meanwhile, the excitement he feels about playing a leading role in setting up the Manhattan project is palpable. “This is simply the largest event since our founding. It has that sort of scope.”


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.




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