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$1M gift launches Cornell Tech’s Public Interest Tech

Cornell Tech has announced a $1 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies to jump-start its Public Interest Tech (PiTech) initiative, aimed at developing the tools, systems, datasets, research and education needed to address significant public sector concerns.

The gift will help Cornell Tech create the foundational infrastructure for PiTech, with the goal of building a community of researchers and practitioners dedicated to addressing societal challenges that otherwise might not benefit from federal research funding, commercial investment and foundation support.

“Our commitment to initiatives like Public Interest Tech will be what sets Cornell Tech apart from other institutions,” said Greg Morrisett, the Jack and Rilla Neafsey Dean and Vice Provost of Cornell Tech. “We are distinguished by a drive not simply to advance tech for tech’s sake, but to build a better world. I am enormously grateful for The Atlantic Philanthropies’ support of this vision.”

The gift also will support the launch of a Public Interest Tech Studio, which will provide master’s students with product development and entrepreneurial experience addressing real-world public interest challenges with non-profits and other socially-minded organizations.

In Studio, a core part of the Cornell Tech curriculum, students work in interdisciplinary teams to develop tech solutions for startups, companies and organizations in New York City.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by billionaire businessman Charles F. Feeney ’56, has a long history of giving to Cornell University. In 2011, Atlantic made its largest ever commitment, $350 million, to support the establishment of Cornell Tech at a critical moment in Cornell’s winning bid to build an applied sciences and technology campus in New York City.

This grant will be the final one to Cornell from Atlantic Philanthropies, whose contributions to Cornell over the years have totaled nearly $1 billion. Atlantic has announced that it will cease operations this year.

“The Atlantic Philanthropies’ new grant (is) … a capstone to an extraordinary legacy of support from Chuck Feeney for his alma mater,” said Fred Van Sickle, vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development. “Atlantic [is] achieving Chuck’s goal of giving away his entire fortune in his lifetime. Cornell and Cornell Tech are proud to have played such an important role in Chuck’s mission of ‘giving while living,’ which has resulted in more than $8 billion in philanthropy around the world.”

“We are honored that one of our final gifts will support the Cornell Tech campus once more,” said Christopher Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, “and can think of no better use than Public Interest Tech – advancing technology as a means to a better quality of life for communities in New York City, across the nation, and around the world.”

Deborah Estrin, associate dean for impact and Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor, also was instrumental in coordinating the Atlantic gift. She works to strengthen Cornell Tech’s external relationships with public, private and non-profit organizations – in service of campuswide initiatives.

“This generous seed gift from The Atlantic Philanthropies will enable early concept testing as a foundation for our large-scale launch,” said Estrin, “creating a platform for shaping new technologies to meet unmet public interest needs.”

In the near term, the Atlantic gift will help Cornell Tech seed the infrastructure necessary to catalyze collaboration among technical, policy and community experts and develop technologies in the public interest. The initiative will span both Cornell Tech and Cornell’s Ithaca campus.

One of the driving inspirations for PiTech was the tech clinic, a form of public interest tech which emerged organically at Cornell Tech. The first tech clinic launched in fall 2019, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. The Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA) supports survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV).

By pairing Cornell Tech’s expertise in human-computer interaction and security with engagement by IPV victims and policymakers, professors Nicki Dell and Tom Ristenpart developed a computer security clinic that helps IPV survivors navigate technology abuse. They are now scaling the clinic to serve the larger New York City metropolitan region and helping to create a model that is replicable across the country.

The Atlantic gift will help support the establishment of two additional tech clinics over the next two years. These clinics will focus the expertise of Cornell Tech faculty on public interest research.

Shalini Mimani, associate vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development at Cornell Tech, believes Cornell Tech and its researchers are well positioned to fill the need for data science-based decision-making and technology-enabled interventions that will be critical to drive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic “has amplified the need for sociotechnical solutions around disease surveillance and home-based medical care,” said Estrin.

“Cornell Tech researchers and students are poised to work across technology, policy, and industry networks to assess and develop approaches that can support communities affected by these challenges,” Mimani said. “PiTech will be particularly relevant as New York City and the world at large struggle to recover from the social and economic impact of the pandemic.”

A version of this story appears on the Division of Alumni Affairs and Development website.

Linda Copman is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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