Columbia University today (July 15) officially opened the Columbia Startup Lab, a collaborative space in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, with a press conference and evening gala. The lab provides subsidized workspaces and resources for Columbia MBAs and university alumni running their own companies.
The Startup Lab, which began operations on June 10, is expected to bolster new businesses coming out of the university, increase inter-school collaboration, and expand Columbia’s footprint in the New York City startup scene. “It’s an opportunity for business school students to work in a great entrepreneurial environment surrounded by other entrepreneurs,” says Vince Ponzo, director of entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. “It’s a bottom-up way of weaving the schools together and building relationships there and creating an environment where people can learn, be exposed to ideas, and meet new people. It’s just really cool.”
The hyper-modern, 5,100-square-foot facility includes an open workspace, two conference rooms, 40 flex desks for visitors, private telephone booths, a kitchen, and a second-floor loft. The Startup Lab will also offer networking happy hours, mentorship from alumni founders and venture capitalists, and educational seminars.
Alumni who graduated within the past five years from Columbia College and the university’s schools in business, law, engineering, and international and public affairs are eligible to apply for 71 desks in the space. As the biggest sponsor, Columbia Business School holds 28 of the seats. MBAs must fill out an application and undergo a series of interviews with B-school administrators and entrepreneurs for a one-year spot. The B-school subsidizes the cost, so MBA entrepreneurs pay only $150 per month – a bargain for NYC office space.
During the application process, the committee looks for two things, Ponzo says. Business that have some kind of traction, “not just something written on the back of napkin,” and founders eager to contribute to the community. “There are no egos. It’s meant to be an everybody-in-this-together type of community,” Ponzo says. “Having worked in these spaces before, I can tell you that no matter what the place looks like, if you don’t have community, people stop showing up. They don’t want to be there.”
For Columbia MBA Elizabeth Wilkes, who graduated in 2013, the workspace lends legitimacy to her startup Exubrancy, which runs employee health and happiness programs. Wilkes developed the idea in B-school and now occupies one of the Startup Lab desks. “Overhead costs for office space are crippling, so a lot of people end up working in their apartments, which in my opinion is not conductive to success,” she points out. “I can’t stress enough what having a space this cool and current means for client meetings, employee interviews, and potential vendors,” she says. “This is really a leg up for us as entrepreneurs starting out in New York City.”
The new center expands on the earlier Columbia Business Lab, which was open to fewer entrepreneurs and limited to business school alumni. It also represents a wider push by the university, and the B-school in particular, to expand the scope of its entrepreneurial offerings. Ponzo, himself, was part of that plan. Columbia tapped him to oversee the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center and to develop the school’s startup ecosystem. In April, the university hosted its first entrepreneurship festival, #StartupColumbia.
The changes are no doubt welcomed by B-school students. During the 2012-2013 academic year, some 80% of Columbia MBA candidates took an entrepreneurship course. Growth in the school’s entrepreneurship club, Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization, jumped from 321 members in 2011 to 406 this year.
The new space demonstrates that Columbia is not just for Wall Street-bound MBAs, Ponzo says. “A physical presence downtown is an opportunity for us to show and start promoting the startups that we’ve had. We’ve had tons and tons of successes, but I don’t know that those have ever been shared.”