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Entrepreneurship and Innovation Resurgent in New Jersey

Business incubators, venture capital, labs and tools, and entrepreneurial expertise are fast becoming available across the Garden State

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It’s almost become an adage: New Jersey was once the center of innovation in the country but no longer. That title is now held by California, or Massachusetts, or New York, or even Washington. But recently, funding, professional support, and office space for entrepreneurs have been springing up all over the state — for those who know where to find them. Universities are helping to lead the way.

A number of New Jersey universities are seeing it as part of their role to encourage business incubation. For instance, Anne-Marie Maman, executive director of the year-old Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, says her organization provides tools and training to foster entrepreneurs and an entrepreneurial mindset. University commitment from the very top has been proceeding at a rapid pace unusual for higher education. Support for students, faculty, and alumni includes tech space at the Princeton Entrepreneurship Hub, technology licensing opportunities, and an open-ended venture fund.

Next year PEC will open an Innovation Center — offering wet labs (for pharma), dry labs (for electrical engineering), as well as co-working space to support faculty members, students, alumni, and the local community.

Further north at Montclair State University, former Verizon President and CEO Dennis Bone leads the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship. According to Bone, entrepreneurial thinking is an essential survival skill for anyone in this world of rapid change — identifying problems that need fixing and collaborating on solutions.

The Feliciano Center hosts many seminars and workshops open to the general public for learning and networking. They focus on all aspects of entrepreneurship.

Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken last August opened the Stevens Venture Center to provide workspace, prototype lab, and networking opportunities for Stevens-affiliated entrepreneurs. It’s housed in the same waterfront building directly across from New York City as Jet.com, the e-commerce startup Walmart acquired for $3 billion in September.

In the model of Silicon Valley (infused with talent from Stanford University) or the Route 128 corridor of Cambridge (with proximity to MIT), the idea is to create a culture that sparks innovation and creates jobs by connecting like-minded people to resources. Tech entrepreneur Aaron Price launched Propeller last May as a way to bring New York and New Jersey innovation communities and funders together on Hoboken’s Pier A.

Some of the more visible efforts to link business innovation to a supporting ecosystem are happening in downtown Newark — where Amazon-owned Audible is pouring financial and intellectual capital into attracting and mentoring businesses to bring jobs and economic revival to the city. (A comprehensive list of resources has been compiled by the NJIT Innovation Acceleration Center.)

Over in Holmdel, the legendary Bell Labs space (the length of three football fields) is being reborn as BellWorks, and private developers are creating a self-contained environment to work, play, and innovate.

New Jersey’s future economic vitality is linked to entrepreneurial innovation, coordinating and leveraging resources, noted Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, at its recent Innovation Summit at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

“New Jersey was the Innovation State. New Jersey is the Innovation State,” she said. “Collaboration between industry, academia, and government is essential.”

Elsewhere throughout the state NJIT, Rutgers, Rowan, and Seton Hall are expanding support of entrepreneurship and see it as a way to attract the best and brightest while preparing these students to thrive in the “gig economy.”

The New Jersey Business Incubation Network offers a community of experts and facilities (many affiliated with community colleges) for both early-stage and expansion-stage startups.

Despite all the activity, not everyone is impressed. David Sorin, partner in McCarter & English, LLP, says New York universities are running circles around their New Jersey counterparts by providing real funding for students to start real businesses. It’s the logical evolution of “career services” when a clearcut path no longer exists to graduate, join an established corporation, and enjoy a safe and steady lifetime career. Rowan started a $5 million innovation fund in 2014. Rutgers Business School is part of Newark Venture Partners, which will soon take applications to fund a second round of companies.

Kathleen Coviello, director of technology and life sciences for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, says the 500th angel investment has been approved since the state established the angel investment tax credit three years ago. (Entrepreneurs can follow this link to apply for NJEDA funding.) NJEDA also operates an incubator in North Brunswick for life sciences companies that can’t build labs on their own and offers tax credits through the Grow NJ assistance program.

Katherine O’Neill, executive director of the JumpStart New Jersey Angel Network, says more than $50 million has been invested since 2002 in Mid-Atlantic region companies — close to half in New Jersey. JumpStart angels typically invest between $200,000 and $500,000 but only if there’s value to add in the form of introductions, category expertise, or other ways to accelerate growth. (Follow this link for more information on how to apply.)

Investors are looking for businesses whose owners show an open mind and the ability to iterate quickly and have a team with a track record of success. Jim Gunton, general partner at the NJTC Venture Fund, recommends persistence. A rejection today can turn into success tomorrow. What’s the best way to connect with an investor? Personal introductions from accountants and attorneys who know your business are key to opening doors.

NJBIA Innovation Summit keynote Bob Hugin, executive chairman of Summit-based pharmaceutical company Celgene Corp., says it took 17 years for the company to become profitable and New Jersey tax law allowing the sale of losses kept it in the game. Today, Celgene’s market capitalization is $80 billion.

Laurie Petersen is a writer, editor, and event organizer based in Hoboken.

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