Columbia alumni who have founded startups will now have more than just their degrees in common. Starting in June, they will be sharing office space downtown in the new Columbia Startup Lab.
The lab space—housed in the 5,100-square-foot lab space in the WeWork building on Varick Street in SoHo—will provide a collaborative space for 31 teams of entrepreneurs who have graduated from the University in the past five years. The cost to use the space is $150—a price heavily subsidized with the help of Columbia—per month per desk.
Chris McGarry, director for Columbia Entrepreneurship, said that the location will provide entrepreneurs the space to do the work they love.
“It looks and feels like a warm, comfortable and friendly place to hang out and do work. I describe it as kind of a Starbucks,” McGarry. “You go in, the smell of coffee is there, you can relax, have an informal meeting or be heads down in your computer.”
McGarry said that the lab is also designed to fuel collaboration between the teams.
“They also designed it to be a collaborative environment, so that folks are funneled through the same place or they make the accidental meetings of people,” McGarry said. “The value of a coworking space is more than just a place to get in out of the rain and set up your laptop and work on your project, but the value is that the person sitting next to you, maybe they have solved the problem that your are working on today.”
Modabound co-founders Alexa Varsavsky and Carolina Garcia, both CC ’12, were chosen for the lab and said that they were looking forward to meeting the other entrepreneuers.
“We’re pretty excited about being more involved in the Columbia alumni community that is involved in our industry, so the tech startup space—it should be good to be in that environment and get to collaborate with people,” Varsavsky said.
Varsavsky and Garcia conceptualized the idea for Modabound, a virtual marketplace for college students to buy and sell fashion items to each other, in their final year at Columbia.
Garcia said that at the time, there was very little support from the University for people starting their businesses and that the only access to entrepreneurial advice they would get was from events in the Business School.
“The business major was just coming out,” Garcia said. “There was a lot less focus on business and entrepreneurship than there is now.”
In the years since Garcia graduated, Columbia has ramped up its efforts—including creating Columbia Entrepreneurship, an organization within the president’s office with a close relationship with the University Office of Alumni Relations and Development that aims to provide support for students and alumni pursuing startup projects.
Daniel Bauer, current Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral candidate, along with Robert Coyne, GSAS ’14, cofounded WordsEye, a software that turns basic natural English-language description into images.
Bauer, who is currently the vice president of engineering and research at the startup, said WordsEye gives “people a super easy way to create graphics.”
Coyne and Bauer first conceived of the idea of using natural language to build 3-D scenes in 2006.
Bauer said that WordsEye has been utilizing campus space until now, and the University has been very helpful in terms of providing entrepreneurial resources and advising. However, “Columbia is really far uptown, so it’s really removed from the startup scene,” so a move downtown to entrepreneurial mecca SoHo will allow the startup to flourish, Bauer said.
“At WeWork, you get to see a little bit of the outside world, you get in touch with the outside world as well,” Bauer said.
Cooper Pickett, CC ’10 and co-founder of Longneck & Thunderfoot, another startup to be housed in the space, said that New York and San Francisco are the two hubs for entrepreneurship.
Longneck & Thunderfoot, Pickett explained, refers to a tale of two dinosaurs. The company, he said, aims to help modernize “Web dinosaurs,” or outlets that have been creating content for decades but cannot adapt to the needs of the modern Web.
“Essentially, we turn companies into media companies,” Pickett said. “Every company has the opportunity to publish … but most company blogs for example are terrible or nonexistent or you don’t read them.”
Pickett said that the WeWork space is something that will help them “raise awareness about our company and what we do and also just drive us even more towards building what we set out to do.”
McGarry also described the WeWork space as being at the heart of the startup scene in New York, and is happy to see Columbia capitalizing on this.
“Columbia University will have the largest footprint in the heart of Silicon Alley in the second leading new venture creation community, which is New York City,” McGarry said.