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Originally published July 21, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified July 22, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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New York covets our software crown

With a new $2 billion tech-focused university, New York is pushing to become the next hotbed of software development.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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New Yorkers can be intimidating, especially when they put their money where their mouth is.

Even more so when they’re coming after your crown jewels.

I’m talking about New York’s big push to become the next hotbed of software development.

The Emerald City had better watch out, and not be lulled into complacency by all the shiny new Amazon.com buildings downtown.

If New York pulls this off, and lures the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and software companies, it could be 100 times worse for Seattle than the scuttling of Washington Mutual by JPMorgan Chase.

This dawned on me last week after talking with Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell NYC Tech, a new $2 billion university that’s the centerpiece of New York’s makeover as a software town.

It’s hard to not get excited about the geeky Disneyland that Huttenlocher is developing.

Cornell and Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, are working together to create an entirely new school on a city-owned island between Manhattan and Queens.

The campus is set to open in 2017 with buildings that look like cousins of the downtown Seattle library. Thousands of students eventually will study alongside established tech companies and startups that co-locate there.

For now, the school is operating with a handful of students and faculty in Google’s sprawling New York office. A major benefactor is Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, who donated $133 million.

Huttenlocher has been talking with Microsoft, Amazon.com, Facebook, Twitter and others about supporting the school in various ways. They could end up taking space on the campus or, at a minimum, enable employees in New York to mentor graduate students at the school.

Huttenlocher was in town for the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit but also spent time talking to Cornell alumni and supporters.

He also has been recruiting faculty, especially entrepreneurial tech professors who would complement the school’s mission to nurture New York’s startup community.

“That’s part of our goal — to really build up the tech ecosystem in New York City,” he said.

Cornell NYC Tech is starting out with three cross-disciplinary programs keyed to industries prevalent in the area, including media, health care and the “built environment,” including “smart” buildings and infrastructure.

The school also is building up expertise in large-scale systems and data mining, which happen to be specialties of Seattle-area companies and the University of Washington’s computer-science program.

Simultaneously, Columbia and New York universities are building up their “big data” expertise with new institutes backed by the city’s Applied Sciences NYC program.

It’s all part of departing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to build a spectacular legacy, applying a bold vision and breathtaking resources to stimulate the creation of perhaps 1,000 startup companies and close to 50,000 new jobs over the next three decades.

That’s comparable to what happened by chance in Seattle over the past three decades, after Bill Gates and Paul Allen decided to set up shop in their hometown.

“We’ve been noticed and many other cities would love to have what we have,’’ said Hank Levy, chairman of the UW’s Computer Science and Engineering Department.

Levy said this is intensifying competition for both faculty and Ph.D. students. The UW was able to recruit some top professors last year from other schools, but this year it’s likely to lose some to Cornell NYU Tech.

New York isn’t for everybody, but the school is dangling salaries double or triple those of the UW, Levy said.

UW President Michael Young, who taught at Columbia for more than 20 years, said the challenge isn’t new.

“It’s huge competition all the time,” he said. “We fortunately win more than our share.”

Young also downplayed the threat from Cornell’s new school.

“There’s nothing about that enterprise that’s any different from the environment we’ve been in for the last two decades,” he said, adding that “we hire from Harvard, Harvard hires from us, Stanford tries to poach our people, we poach Stanford people.”

State taxpayers are doing their part, steadily increasing their funding of science and engineering programs.

Perhaps more important are Seattle’s quality of life and relatively affordable housing, which attract and retain people whose talents enable them to live wherever they choose.

That was the case for Oren Etzioni, a UW professor and serial entrepreneur who declined Cornell’s overtures. Etzioni said it’s a “fantastic endeavor” but he likes where he lives.

“If it was here in sunny Seattle — as I’m looking out the window — I would have a very different perspective,” he said.

When I asked Huttenlocher about the intercity competition, he said a bigger concern should be whether tech hubs across the country are investing and growing enough for the country to continue leading the advance of technology.

A more diverse portfolio of tech centers, bringing different perspectives to the industry, helps in the broader competition between the U.S. and other countries.

“For the nation to have a set of places that have different characteristics, of the kinds of companies that are created, is a good thing,” he said. “I see the growth opportunities here as unbounded.”

I guess that’s fine, as long as he doesn’t call Etzioni back on a rainy day in March.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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