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Why New York's 'Silicon Alley' may never match Silicon Valley

New York will offer free land and up to $100 million in infrastructure funds to a university willing to establish a world-class, high-tech school in the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Tuesday.

By Patrick WallContributor / July 20, 2011

A billboard sponsored by DoubleClick welcomes visitors to the proverbial 'Silicon Alley' on Broadway in New York City on October 22, 2000.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom/File


New York

The next MIT is destined for N.Y.C., says New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – although critics of his plan for a world-class, applied-science school in the Big Apple question whether the city’s Silicon Alley will ever rival California’s Silicon Valley.

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Under the plan, which Mr. Bloomberg announced Tuesday, the city would offer free land and up to $100 million in infrastructure funds to a university willing to establish an applied-science and engineering school in New York.

But since the city first floated the idea in December, opponents have questioned the wisdom of building a campus from scratch, rather than expanding New York’s existing research institutes.

“It just seems extraordinarily odd to me – to say that, ‘We have these jewels in the crown of New York City, but let’s look outside of them to develop an applied-sciences institute,’ ” says William Zajc, chair of the physics department at Columbia University in New York.

According to the city, a high-tech school could generate hundreds of new businesses, thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in tax revenues. Although New York is already home to several graduate engineering schools – including Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as the Polytechnic Institute of New York University – none is in the Top 10 rankings by U.S. News and World Report.

Earlier this year, 27 US institutions – including Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago – sent preliminary proposals for the new school, as did institutions from eight other nations. Once the final proposals are submitted this fall, the city will select a winner by the end of the year.

Mr. Zajc called “silly” the idea of building a stand-alone school of applied science, separate from the basic sciences such as chemistry and biology. If the city focuses its energy and investments on the new center, he adds, then existing schools like Columbia would be left to compete “with one foot in the bucket.”

Top-flight tech schools require decades of sustained investment, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edward Roberts, who founded the school’s Entrepreneurship Center.

Mr. Roberts and a colleague conducted a large-scale survey, using 2006 data, that found MIT alumni had started more than 25,000 companies, which employ millions of people and generate $2 trillion in annual sales. All this, Roberts says, takes time.


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