Columbia Startup Lab in Full Swing

Jul 16 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer

Columbia Engineering’s thriving community of alumni entrepreneurs has a new home in New York City’s exciting tech startup scene.

Located on the ground floor of the WeWork Soho West building on Varick Street, the new Columbia Startup Lab is home to 45 teams of Columbia entrepreneurs, including 24 teams of Engineering alumni. The tenants represent a range of ventures, from sports and fashion to technology and health. In addition to discounted office space, the tenants receive practical business support, specialized training, and the opportunity to collaborate and network with fellow entrepreneurs. Each startup team—representing not only the Engineering School but also Columbia Business School, Columbia College, and the School of International and Public Affairs—was selected through an application and interview process held in the spring. The qualified entrepreneurs have graduated from the University within the past five years.

At the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 15, Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce joined fellow Columbia deans, University President Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia Entrepreneurship Head Richard Witten, City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and other elected officials. Boyce gave an overview of some of the Engineering alumni startups and underscored the School’s dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship.

“In today’s economy, inventors must also be entrepreneurs if their ideas are to become practical innovations in the marketplace,” said Boyce. “So, in training tomorrow’s leaders, at Columbia Engineering we firmly believe entrepreneurship education and support are essential.” With the Startup Lab, “Columbia innovators now have a powerful home base for their businesses,” she said. The School “is proud to be part of such a bold endeavor, and we look forward to seeing the products and services that will grow here in the years to come.”

The Columbia Startup Lab is just one of the many ways in which the School supports and promotes entrepreneurship. Offering a unique roadmap for its students, alumni, and faculty to pursue their innovative business ideas, the School hosts the Columbia Engineering Fast Pitch Competition, co-hosts the Columbia Venture Competition, and provides the Ignition Grants program, which funds ventures started by current Engineering students. Opening this fall, the School’s brand new MakerSpace in the Mudd Building will provide students with a dedicated place to collaborate, learn, explore, experiment, and create prototypes.

Ken Kruger MS’12 and co-founder, Houtan Fanisalek, say the unique opportunity to work in a shared space has fueled their productivity. The duo’s startup, SideProjects, develops applications using a mobile framework for movement detection that utilizes sensors in wearable tech gear. Their dance app, TwerkMeter, popular among the 13- to 17-year-old female set, is a mobile dance game that directs users to perform specific dance moves as a song plays.

“Prior to working in the Columbia Startup Lab, I was working out of my bedroom,” says Kruger, who earned his master’s from the School in operations research. “The Columbia Startup Lab has provided two critical resources—a place to work and a sense of community. Since moving into the space, my productivity has skyrocketed. There’s something about working around other hardworking people that makes a big difference.”

The founders of NeuroScout, Jordan Muraskin BS’14 and Jason Sherwin, could not agree more.

“While we have been in the Startup Lab for only a few weeks, the step up in our capability as a company has been clear,” says Sherwin. “This is how innovation happens—it needs to be left alone in the right sandbox with access to the right toys. Columbia is doing that.”

NeuroScout has been busy nabbing a few headlines, having been featured recently in Scientific American. Muraskin and Sherwin, under faculty adviser Professor Paul Sajda, have developed an applied brain-computer interface to track perpetual acuity while performing rapid decisions. They are starting out by testing the usability of this new technology in sports; more specifically, in the context of baseball players and the rapid decisions they have to make while playing the game.

“Humans make fast decisions all the time and our goal is for them to make those decisions better,” explains Sherwin.

Teams from the Engineering School that have earned seats at the Startup Lab include innovations in mobile networking, social media development, restaurant management, and patient care. They are co-working in the WeWork space with other like-minded entrepreneurs, and for one year, will have access to training and information sessions provided by Columbia faculty and alumni on topics including intellectual property and strategic planning. Networking opportunities and meet-ups with other Columbia entrepreneurs and alumni mentors will also be available to the startup teams.

For many of these young entrepreneurs, joining the new facility marks a big step forward in achieving a lifetime goal.

“I always knew I wanted to run my own business,” says Kruger. “I got into engineering because I like to build cool things. Building a business can be surprisingly similar to building a computer, but instead of arranging electrical components and wires, you have people and relationships. Combining engineering and business gives me a creative outlet, allowing me to express myself and share my work products on my own terms. And, really, it’s just a lot of fun.”