Columbia Entrepreneurs Talk New Business in NYC

Dec 20 2013 | By Cliff Massey | Photo: Bruce Gilbert

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur in the Big Apple? Answering this pressing question attracted more than 250 Columbia alumni, students, parents, and guests to Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship Night NYC on December 12 at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Dean Mary C. Boyce moderated the discussion with featured panelists Fred Wilson, principal at Union Square Ventures; Alessandro Piol BS’79, MS’82, co-founder of Vedanta Capital; and Jon Oringer MS’99, CEO and founder of upstart Shutterstock. Focusing on New York City’s burgeoning tech scene, Dean Boyce prompted the panelists to share their insights on the skills and resources that lead to startup success.

Dean Boyce and panelists on stage at the Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship Night NYC

Wilson, a well-known New York venture capitalist, cited a risk-taking mentality as one of the crucial components of success for any new venture. “It’s an almost irrational mentality,” he said, “but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.”

Oringer, a startup veteran, echoed these comments with his own personal experience. Before he launched Shutterstock, an online catalog with millions of stock images, Oringer worked on a string of other ideas that never panned out. Following Wilson’s comment on irrationality, he mentioned that any successful entrepreneur must know when to “cut the cord” on a failing business idea and move on to the next one, admitting, “It’s not always easy to know when.” Piol agreed. “You must be willing to listen to your team and to your investors.”

Ultimately, said Piol, the entrepreneur must make the final decision, but doing so without input from others is inadvisable. This willingness to listen is one of the key qualities he looks for in a promising entrepreneur.

At the end of the discussion, Richard Witten ‘75CC, trustee emeritus and special advisor to University President Lee C. Bollinger, introduced six exciting Columbia-born startup teams, including Urban Compass, which enables users to manage their apartment search in one place; Trek Medics, the maker of a new SMS-based emergency dispatching software (currently being beta-tested in Haiti); and The Take, a mobile app that allows moviegoers to identify and purchase products seen in films. The teams each had an opportunity to demonstrate their new business ideas to the assembled guests. Witten also acknowledged the Columbia Venture Community, a group of more than 3,000 alumni, faculty, and students who foster entrepreneurship across the University.

The event marked the sixth in a series of Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship Nights, with the School hosting events in both New York City and Silicon Valley. The next event is scheduled for April 2014 in New York.