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Steven Gal

Steven Gal '88 is a visiting associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the Johnson School and a career entrepreneur. See larger image

The enterprising view from Ithaca: Is it our entrepreneurs' time in the sun?

When my family and I moved to Ithaca last June I had been living in California for 20 years since graduating from Cornell. Moving from San Diego to small-town Ithaca and returning to teaching entrepreneurship again after 15 years, I did not know what to expect.

I have now completed 10 months as a visiting professor. I have had the opportunity to work at the Johnson School with an impressive group of faculty, staff and students and with local entrepreneurs and scientists. But of my many experiences, the most outstanding is seeing how much the field of entrepreneurship at Cornell and in Ithaca has grown since I left -- from startup efforts to a growth-stage business. By any measure -- classes and programs across campus, technology transfer, local activity -- entrepreneurship here is alive and well.

Even so, the real challenges lie ahead, and we have a lot of work to do. The Great Recession and its aftermath have upset the economic balance of the city and state. I have experienced this before, living through years of budget cuts in California that wrecked our schools and universities. Cornell and Ithaca need entrepreneurship now more than ever. We need the jobs and economic activity to allow for growth and to retain the incredible talent that we generate here. The good news is that we have many of the raw materials -- great university-based entrepreneurship education at Cornell, research-driven technology development, and the sheer breadth and depth of services for entrepreneurs.

Ithaca is not Silicon Valley. However, if we are to meet the needs of our community, we have to pick up the pace. There are three things we need to focus on in order to grow our entrepreneurial community: institutionalizing entrepreneurship at Cornell, bringing more capital to Ithaca and building a sustainable local entrepreneurial community.

Entrepreneurship@Cornell (the program by that name and its affiliated programs across campus) is robust in terms of curriculum and offerings, but has forever been funded as a startup. For the most part, annual funding, dependent on the relationships and hard work of a few individuals, drive the programs. These efforts and our ambitions are now beyond the startup phase -- they need institutional investment to be able to sustain, grow and provide the essential succession planning for their leadership. At the Johnson School, many believe that we have most of the ingredients for a top-ranked entrepreneurship program, and we are ambitious about bringing in the capital to make entrepreneurship a permanently funded bedrock of the institution.

Ithaca is woefully undercapitalized for new ventures. In the first nine months of 2009, companies around the University of North Carolina, with about the same level of research dollars as Cornell, raised about 15 times as much venture capital as we did. The $12 million invested here during that period is simply not enough to drive an entrepreneurial economy. We have a great angel investor network in Ithaca, but we need more capital, both resident and from outside, to be able to sustain entrepreneurial health. I believe we can attract needed capital because of the wealth of technology and science available for license at Cornell, because of our global alumni network, but mostly because there are great opportunities to be a venture investor here.

The magic of Silicon Valley for an entrepreneur is that you can try, fail and get another job down the road right away, pouring the proceeds of your success back into the community and other startups. We are not there yet in Ithaca and have seen entrepreneurs depart because the opportunities for them are not here. With the leadership of Cornell and more capital for more new companies, we can keep them here and create the entrepreneurial community that will give us the jobs and the growth we need over the long term.

It's 2030, and the guest speakers for the entrepreneurship immersion program at the Johnson School are well known CEOs from some of the world's fastest growing technology and life-science companies. Getting here was just a matter of driving up the hill from their headquarters in Ithaca, N.Y.

Steven Gal '88 is a visiting associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the Johnson School and a career entrepreneur.

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