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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New York vs. Silicon Valley -- Again

Posted By on Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 11:30 AM


New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is running a competition to award a university with about 10 acres of city land and up to $100 million to create a campus devoted to applied sciences and engineering. Stanford is making a big push to win this prize.

Stanford is up against 26 other schools, among them New York State's own Cornell, whose Dan Huttenlocher, dean of computing and information science, made his case in an interview with PEHub's Connie Loizos on Monday. It's another reprise of the "New York vs. Silicon Valley" argument that isn't really an argument. In any case, based on Huttenlocher's remarks, I don't think Cornell will win the big prize (which entails the "winner" spending perhaps $1 billion to build the campus).

Loizos asked him: "Is this about helping to create a Silicon Valley in New York?" He responded by citing the differences between the two tech regions. 

"Silicon Valley has tended to be more about pure technology plays -- more about technology itself than a particular industry sector," he said to Loizos. In its proposal, Cornell will focus on "sectors that have been successful in New York so far: Media and advertising and a whole host of other things."

Those "other things" could be crucial, since the plan is for a facility devoted to "applied sciences and engineering," not for one devoted to further glutting the online media market.

And anyway, where did this idea come from that New York is more successful than Silicon Valley in online media and advertising? I'm no cheerleader for either Silicon Valley or New York, and I don't care which school wins this competition, But surely Huttenlocher has heard of Google -- the Silicon Valley company that so dominates online advertising that it's facing FTC scrutiny.

It's not like the Bay Area is hurting for online media companies, either. We can start with Netflix and just keep listing companies until someone falls asleep. Of course, we could do the same for New York. In fact, New York is so successful already as a tech/media hub that people have mostly stopped using the term "Silicon Alley" to describe the industry there.

Which makes Huttenlocher's region-vs.region paradigm seem even sillier. But if we're going to play that game, consider this: Google, like so many other Silicon Valley companies, was started by Stanford grads. Huttenlocher is justly proud of his grads, too. In the interview, he mentions three: Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, a startup funder; John Zimmer, founder of Zimride, which matches people who need rides with people taking car trips; and Jeff Hawkins, one of the inventors of the Palm Pilot.

Y Combinator is headquartered in Mountain View. Zimride is headquartered in Palo Alto, and Stanford students make up a big part of its user base. In his bio, Zimmer notes that he "moved from New York City to Palo Alto in July of 2008 by using Zimride to carpool across America." Upon graduating from Cornell, Hawkins hightailed it to the Valley, and he's been there ever since.

One big reason tech companies come to the Valley is Stanford, and its constant flow of highly qualified graduates.

Which isn't to say that Cornell doesn't deserve the goodies New York City is doling out.

On the other hand, as Vivek Wadwha explained in the Washington Post, trying to create regional industry clusters doesn't really work. If they happen naturally, as in the Valley, that's one thing, but engineering them almost never yields the promised benefits.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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Dan Mitchell


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