Cornell Tech’s David Cheng, MBA ’17, knows the value of speech therapy, having benefited from several years of it while growing up in northern Virginia.
He also is aware that many of the people who need it, for financial or other reasons, don’t have access to therapists and the life-changing service they provide. That’s why he and Cornell Tech master’s in computer science candidate Luis Serota – who also went through years of speech therapy to treat his stutter – have created Speech Up, a mobile app that combines gaming and therapy.
“One thing that the people at Cornell Tech instilled in us early on was, ‘Come in and solve real-world problems,’” said Cheng, whose project was one of four Startup Award winners announced May 19 at Cornell Tech’s annual Open Studio end-of-semester exhibition.
In addition to Speech Up, winners of this year’s Startup Awards included:
• SageLink: a technology that creates native advertisements – ads that blend into the content – for voice-activated applications like Alexa.
• Switch: a digital insurance broker tailored to freelance workers, who are expected by 2020 to make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.
• Ursa: a transcription and live-annotation service that touts the ability to highlight key insights from meetings and interviews.
Each of the four startup companies will receive $100,000 in pre-seed funding, including a year of free co-working office space at the new campus on Roosevelt Island, which is set to open this summer.
The Open Studio event was held at Cornell Tech’s current location in the Google building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Dean Dan Huttenlocher reported that construction of the new campus is “really coming along fast.” The official dedication is scheduled for Sept. 13.
Nine prospective companies gave short presentations to a gathering of around 300 people at Open Studio. Huttenlocher said public engagement is part of the ethos of Cornell Tech, and Open Studio is a big part of that engagement.
“Open Studio is about really opening up – not just to the people who’ve been involved in the studio curriculum all semester, but also to a lot of people in the broader Cornell Tech community and the tech community in New York City,” he said. “It’s to show what we’ve been up to, and to celebrate what our tremendous students, faculty and staff have accomplished.”
The four winners came from the Startup Studio, a yearlong program in which budding entrepreneurs develop, test and pitch their ideas. It’s that kind of practical, trial-by-fire approach that drew Speech Up’s Cheng to Cornell Tech.
“It’s why I chose this over a lot of traditional business schools,” said Cheng, who worked for two years as a senior technology consultant at Deloitte before enrolling at Cornell Tech last year. “You get to come in and do real things, and so we wanted to do something that would be personally impactful. Being able to address the efficacy of [speech therapy] right now is something that we’re really excited about.”
Aamer Hassanally, MBA ’17, who presented for Switch, is a 2012 Brown University graduate who spent four years in business in Mumbai, India, before enrolling at Cornell Tech.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Hassanally said. “The program is just designed to get us to this point, where we have the confidence to pitch in front of a large audience. And having had the feedback from people like David Tisch (head of Startup Studio) and Greg Pass (chief entrepreneurial officer and former CTO at Twitter) has gotten us to where we’re confident in our idea.”
Cornell Tech attempts to fuse technology with business and creative thinking to create a 21st-century model for graduate education. Hassanally said it “made perfect sense” to him.
“Cornell Tech is this niche program, but it was so suited to what I wanted to do next in my career,” he said. “And I think being out of school and then coming back gives you a focus and an understanding of what you want to get out of the program. That perspective was really helpful.”
All four Startup Award winners will have work space at Cornell Tech’s The Bridge – the new co-location building that will house established tech companies and startups side by side with academic researchers. The Bridge was designed by architects Weiss/Manfredi and developed with Forest City Ratner Cos., which helps sponsor the Startup Awards.
More than 30 startups have been formed on the Cornell Tech campus since it opened in July 2012. The companies have raised a total of $20 million in pre-seed and seed funding, and employ 105 people. More than 90 percent of them are headquartered in New York City.