High-profile collaborations build NJ’s startup economy (photos)

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A series of recent high-profile events showcased the state’s strategy of attracting more startups and entrepreneurs to build and expand their companies while contributing to the broader innovation economy.

Some of those developments in the innovation economy space have included the recent grand opening of HAX in Newark, the AI Summit in Princeton, the HELIX project in New Brunswick, SciTech Scity/Edge Works in Jersey City and last week’s launch of NJ FAST, a fintech accelerator at Stevens Institute of Technology – featuring a collaboration between the New Jersey Economic Development Authority; Plug and Play, a platform that connects a variety of stakeholders; Stevens Institute and Prudential Financial Inc. NJ FAST marks the state’s fourth Strategic Innovation Center and Plug and Play’s first location on the East Coast.

During a post-event gaggle with reporters in Hoboken, Gov. Phil Murphy spoke about how New Jersey’s moves are playing in the startup and innovation sectors with stakeholders and industry leaders.

“There’s a huge amount of traction,” Murphy told reporters. “Both here and the places we travel. This one [NJ FAST], obviously the players are going to be largely the banks, the insurance companies, the fintech companies themselves.”

The governor reflected on the journey over the last few years of selling the state to leaders in other countries and states like California. “It’s funny – when we first started pitching ourselves, we were new kids on the block,” Murphy explained. “Jersey had great heritage in the innovation economy. But to be frank, we had lost our way. They were conversations that were prospective – ‘this is what we are planning to do; this is what we are thinking about.’ But we had to put meat on the bones. You fast forward to a day like today or the trip in California a few weeks ago with AI companies in the Bay Area and Hollywood in the Greater Los Angeles Area. They know us.”

Murphy said the efforts and investments are breaking through. “We’re doing stuff. We have personal relationships. Today is a great example. This is really money,” said Murphy. “These are real partners. This is official. This thing’s open for business.”

“That is the big shift,” the governor explained. “It isn’t that we’ve changed. We are cold-blooded. We look in the mirror every morning and we’re cold-blooded about who we are and who we can be versus who we are not and who we can’t be. And fintech, offshore wind, AI – more recently, green economy, and HAX – with a manufacturing angle, life sciences – those have always been on the list. It’s just a question of banging them out.”

The governor also discussed crucial partnerships – connecting higher education to industry. “The higher ed piece is incredibly important,” said Murphy. “In our darkest days when we had lost our way as a state, we never really lost our way with big companies. The big companies – there were some exceptions – for the most part, hung in there. Where we lost our way was at the startup community. And where we had never found our way an effective pipeline of so-called translational research or commercialization of research that was done at institutions of higher ed. Historically, it was done at Bell Labs.”

Officials announce the New Jersey Fintech Accelerator at Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ FAST) at the Babbio Center in Hoboken on May 7, 2024.
“I think it’s the best time in the world to be an entrepreneur,” Plug and Play Founder and CEO Saeed Amidi said during the NJ FAST launch at Stevens Institute of Technology on May 7, 2024. – PROVIDED BY RICH HUNDLEY III/NJ GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Murphy noted that such work is still being done at several corporations – and he cited what Prudential is doing on innovation and research and development under the leadership of CEO Charles Lowrey, who attended the NJ FAST event.

“But we had done a poor job of translating all of the above into the startup culture that you see exists in the Bay Area; that exists in Greater Boston; that you see in the Research Triangle in North Carolina,” said Murphy. “Those days are over. We are now back on the boards in a big way and that’s only going up.”

Murphy said work is already underway on ideas similar to NJ FAST for other verticals to build around. “They won’t always be this way. But I think the virtuous combo is the EDA – us; an institution of higher education; a big corporate sponsor or two; and somebody who’s really good at accelerating,” said Murphy. “And there’s nobody better than Plug and Play. I think you are going to see more of that. And now, we are big time on the map for startups. Not just because of these. The Evergreen Investment Fund is also a big reason we’re back in business on the startup community.”

‘A real geography of innovation’

During his remarks at the NJ FAST event, NJEDA Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan echoed those sentiments – emphasizing the administration’s focus on partnerships, building capacity and establishing corridors of innovation.

“We talk a lot about the Route 1 Corridor in life sciences and technology – and that’s a really important spine of the state’s innovation ecosystem,” said Sullivan.

“What doesn’t get enough attention is this kind of this T-shaped belt that starts up in Englewood Cliffs, goes down into Hoboken – and keeps going out to Newark, to Prudential and all of the great companies in insurance and financial services in Newark, and down into Jersey City,” he continued. “We have a real geography of innovation around fintech and insuretech and financial services – that this center, I think, is going to be the beating heart of. And I think gives it a real logic to help build the scale and the density of the kinds of companies and innovators and founders and employees, and technology – that’s really going to fuel this industry going forward.”

Sullivan noted that part of innovation is that it is often unclear which companies are going to thrive, and which ones are going to fail – which is why there has been a focus on building the capacity out.

“And when you add a Plug and Play to our innovation ecosystem – we think the sky’s the limit,” said Sullivan.

As he discussed the state’s innovation trajectory over the next five, 10, 25 years – Sullivan stressed that bringing in entities and institutions such as Prudential, Stevens, and Plug and Play allows the state to up its capacity game.

“For us to grow and germinate and support new companies that grow in scale – because that’s how we get outsized job creation,” said Sullivan. “And see creation of really good, family-sustaining jobs. Not just at the founder level – but the employee level as well. And that’s what’s going to be really critical to driving us forward.”

Recipe for success

Sullivan noted that successful innovation ecosystems around the country and world are typically marked by strong and intentional collaboration between higher ed, big companies, venture capital, accelerators and startups, with some government money and support— exactly the recipe in place at NJ FAST.

“We are incredibly excited. We think the sky’s the limit for what this could mean for Hoboken; for Hudson County; for North Jersey; for New Jersey,” said Sullivan. “One of the reasons we have that confidence is because when we put out a call for partners, someone of the caliber of [CEO] Saeed [Amidi] and the team at Plug and Play showed up and said – ‘we want in.’”

“Though this accelerator represents a new frontier when it comes to our state’s leadership in fintech, it also is a part of our administration’s broader and long-standing strategy to revive and reimagine New Jersey’s innovation economy,” Murphy said during his remarks. “In fact, NJ FAST will be New Jersey’s fourth Strategic Innovation Center in the past three years alone. And each one of these engines for innovation is oriented around a deeply rooted bedrock industry for the Garden State.”

Murphy said that while these different projects are focused on distinct domains of innovation – together, they are a part of a larger vision.

“Creating opportunities for corporate leaders, students, entrepreneurs, investors and researchers to come together and work together in unleashing new possibilities,” said Murphy. “We want to empower our state’s top minds to lead the way in building the economy of tomorrow and doing it – and staying right here in New Jersey.”

“Even at this early stage in the game, we are already seeing this vision for New Jersey’s innovation ecosystem come to life,” the governor emphasized, ticking off highlights from the recent string of announcements. “And with today’s announcement of NJ FAST, this much is clear – it’s going to be a huge May and a huge summer for New Jersey’s innovation economy.”


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