Long known as one of America’s best college towns, Ithaca has gained national attention recently for its growing entrepreneurial scene. Last July, Forbes magazine dubbed Cornell University “Silicon Ivy,” and Bloomberg TV, CNN Money, Entrepreneur and The Street have since taken note of how Ithaca has graduated into a full-fledged startup hub with roughly 100 companies now taking root in the Finger Lakes community.
“Ithaca’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem did not happen by accident,” said Tom Schryver, executive director of regional economic advancement at Cornell. “Leaders from the city, area universities and local businesspeople have really come together to ensure that the city supports and fosters startup companies.”
One such support system is the new downtown incubator, Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, which opened its doors in September. Rev is a collaborative project between Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College, and is designed to be a hub for the region’s entrepreneurial community. It provides working space, mentorship and resources to member companies, as well as programming and events that support entrepreneurship for the public.
Local universities are also supporting student entrepreneurs through programs like Entrepreneurship at Cornell, a university-wide program that enriches students’ academic work with access to mentors and other resources critical to learning about and working through the challenges of starting a company. One firm that has stemmed from the program is Party Headphones, a company that rents wireless headphones for trendy silent discos. Founded by Jake Reisch, a current senior at Cornell, the company has raised more than $600,000 in funding and has booked events with the likes of Red Bull, MTV2 and Pepsi, benefitting from access to dozens of investors and supporters through Cornell.
An Enterprising Past
Ithaca has a rich history of entrepreneurial success dating back to Cornell’s co-founder, Ezra Cornell, who revolutionized communications technology and founded Western Union in the late 1800s. In the last two decades, Cornell alum Greg Galvin has launched three successful businesses in Ithaca, including Kionix Inc., which manufactures accelerometers and now employs more than 200 people. His most recent venture, Incodema3D, which 3D prints precision parts, was among the first companies to receive START-UP NY tax incentives.
Ithaca startups, spanning a wide range of industries, are growing. Natural snack company Emmy’s Organics, which was founded in Ithaca and continues to manufacture its products there, posted more than $1 million in revenue last year. BinOptics, a technology company that makes lasers for data and telecommunications that was recently purchased for $230 million by a Massachusetts-based company, received funding from Cayuga Venture Fund. Additionally, KensaGroup is a creative group that incubates and commercializes university technologies.
“Startups are helping to fuel Ithaca’s economy,” said Zach Shulman, who wears dual hats as the director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell and a managing partner at Cayuga Venture Fund. “Sometimes, it is easier to grow our own businesses than to attract them,” he noted, adding, “Who knows? We may soon see a billion-dollar startup born here.”
by Dariel Y. Curren
Dariel Y. Curren grew up in the Finger Lakes and now leads the Economic Development Division at Development Counselors International in New York City.