Cornell NYC Tech: Here’s Why a Qualcomm Billionaire Gave $133 Million

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Vijay Mathur / REUTERS

Qualcomm Chairman Irwin Jacobs speaks during a business seminar themed "Diffusion of wireless innovation - Enriching Lives" organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in New Delhi November 7, 2008.

New York City’s plan to establish a world-class applied sciences university received a major boost on Monday with the announcement of a $133 million donation from prominent tech billionaire and philanthropist Irwin M. Jacobs, the founding chairman of mobile technology giant Qualcomm. Jacobs and his wife Joan are making the donation to Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which have joined forces with New York City to launch Cornell Tech, a $2 billion research university to be located on Roosevelt Island, between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens.

“This is a great day for New York,” a beaming Mayor Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference, flanked by the Jacobses and officials from Cornell and Technion. “It is an extraordinary gift.” Bloomberg hopes Cornell Tech will help jumpstart New York’s tech economy, as Stanford University did in Silicon Valley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did in Boston. In recent years, Bloomberg, a billionaire media mogul in his final term in office, has made boosting New York’s tech profile a central part of his legacy. “We are excited to be partnering with Cornell University to train the next generation of engineering talent right here in NYC,” Bloomberg said.

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Officials said the donation will fund the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute (JTCII), which will play a central role in the new Cornell Tech campus. The JTCII will offer two-year graduate degree programs, and support applied, interdisciplinary research by faculty, students and fellows, in collaboration with industry partners. The Jacobses are well-known for their philanthropy, having already donated tens of millions to both Cornell and Technion, as well as the University of California at San Diego, where Irwin Jacobs was a professor of computer science and engineering.

“While I was at Cornell in engineering, I was an engineering co-op student, and that turned out to be very valuable because we’d go out every other term to work in industry and have that close association with industry,” Jacobs, 79, said at the press conference. “So this approach by Technion and Cornell of bringing in industry representatives and having a large amount of contact, from my experience, I think that’s going to work out very, very well.” Jacobs is worth $1.55 billion as of March 2013 year, according to Forbes.

In an hour-long discussion with TIME shortly before Monday’s announcement, Cornell University president David J. Skorton, Technion president Peretz Lavie, and Cornell NYC dean Dan Huttenlocher outlined their vision. The presidents confirmed that the Jacobs donation brings the total amount of private funds raised for Cornell Tech to $500 million. Ultimately, Cornell Tech will cost $2 billion by the time the 12-acre Roosevelt Island campus, which will accommodate over 2,000 students, is completed in 2037.

Cornell Tech is currently in session in temporary space donated by Google at the tech giant’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Classes began in January and there are currently seven students. Applications are now being evaluated for the fall term, Huttenlocher said.

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Cornell Tech is the product of a remarkable collaboration between the Bloomberg administration, Cornell, Technion, and private donors. (With a little help from Google: Company executive chairman Eric Schmidt is on the Cornell Tech steering committee.) In December of 2011, Bloomberg announced that the two universities had won a city-backed competition to build the new campus, beating out Stanford, among other institutions. New York City will donate an estimated $300 million worth of real estate on Roosevelt Island, and another billionaire Cornell alumnus, Charles F. Feeney, who made his fortune in Duty Free sales, is donating $350 million.

The Bloomberg administration solicited bids from dozens of institutions around the world for the right to build the new campus. “When I got the letter from Mayor Bloomberg, I thought that someone had made a mistake, or that it was April 1st,” Lavie, Technion’s president, told TIME. But although Technion is one of Israel’s most prestigious universities — and its oldest — there was no way it could make a bid on its own: Technion needed an ally. “From the beginning, we said we will do it if we have an American partner,” Lavie said.

That’s when Sandy Weill called. Weill, a Wall Street titan and former Chairman and CEO of Citigroup, is a Cornell alumnus who served on the board of trustees for many years and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his alma mater, including providing the endowment for Cornell’s medical school, the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Weill, a longtime supporter of Israel, placed a call to Lavie urging him to consider teaming up with Cornell to make a joint bid. Less than one hour later, Lavie was on the phone with Cornell president Skorton, the two presidents recalled in the interview with TIME. “Sandy Weill ignited the process,” Lavie said.

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Lavie and Skorton quickly realized that they shared a similar vision for what was possible with the New York City campus, and grew to develop a relationship that went beyond their bid’s partnership, into the realm of friendship. The result of their shared vision is Cornell Tech’s innovative curriculum, which departs from traditional academic departments and is organized into interdisciplinary “hubs” chosen for their relevance to the New York City economy, according to Cornell Tech officials.

The first hub is “Connective Media,” which is focused on mobile technology, in a nod to Qualcomm, and social media, because of New York City’s role as the epicenter of the media industry. The “Healthier Life” hub aims to attract students interested in developing new technology aimed at better health care. The “Built Environment” hub will work on increasing the efficiency and sustainability of large-scale urban environments like New York City. These groups will work together on joint projects.

Cornell Tech will also offer an “Industrial Affiliates” program that will bring New York City entrepreneurs and experts onto campus to provide guidance and mentorship for students. The goal is practical. “We are going to educate students to go out and help the economy,” Lavie said.

Dean Huttenlocher cited three ways in which the school aims to “invert” the traditional graduate school model. First, many U.S. universities have satellite campuses overseas; Cornell Tech is the most ambitious example to date of a foreign university like Technion doing the reverse, and coming to the U.S. Second, many top U.S. universities send students off-campus on internships to work with established companies; Cornell Tech will bring top tech companies and startup entrepreneurs onto campus to mentor students.

Finally, Cornell Tech aims to to work on research and product development in parallel — ie. at the same time — rather than in sequence, which is the Stanford/Silicon Valley model, perhaps best exemplified by Google.