Is there an emerging tech ecosystem in N.J.? That was the question addressed by Travis Kahn, executive director of N.J.’s tech accelerator TechLaunch(Montclair) at the NJConnect Meetup in Red Bank on June 13, 2012.
The conclusion: “Just the fact that we are having a conversation about it confirms there is an emerging tech scene,” he said. “We have the stew; all we need to do is light the fire.”
Speaking to about 40 attendees and introduced by NJConnect co-organizer Domenick Cilea, Kahn noted that to create a sustainable tech scene, all the disparate parts of an interdependent tech ecosystem have to be present.
Kahn argued that many of those ingredients are already here in N.J., in great enough quantity to begin to cultivate a sustainable tech ecosystem — an environment where everyone is interconnected and there is a mutually beneficial outcome of working together.
What’s missing here are mature creativity and development hubs, but these are already being spawned, Kahn said. Communities are developing all over N.J., with tech meetups beginning to specialize, he explained. “Hoboken is trying to become the app hub of N.J. … In Asbury Park you meet ‘nose to the ground’ programmers, developers and hackers,” he said.
Community is essential. “I’m not talking about just meetup groups. I’m talking about mentors to help companies develop ideas and turn them into something viable; consumers who can help you test your idea and be key drivers for using your platform, program or application,” Kahn said.
“While there is no way that within five years we are going to overtake New York as a tech center, once we establish hubs and communities here we will have a value add for people to stay here and join companies here. Companies will be sustainable here because there is lower overhead compared with New York, Kahn noted. “We may go to New York for work, but when we come home we plant our heads in New Jersey.”
So what sets N.J. apart? We have the legacy of Thomas Edison; we are inventors, Kahn said. For the most part, “we are not city dwellers. We don’t develop things for cities, like checking in” at the local bar and trying to find friends within a block or two. We are family-oriented, we love the real Jersey Shore, we commute and, he pointed out, we are attracting talent.
The universities here are top-notch. “In reality universities are not only hotbeds of talent but centers for research, development, ideas and technology transfer,” he said.
N.J. also has sufficient access to capital, with the two largest East Coast venture capital hubs “bookending us on both sides.” Capital is already coming into the state, Kahn noted, with N.J. in the top 10 for traditional venture capital investment. “You have to be around other entrepreneurs and rub elbows with them to make it worthwhile for an angel or VC to come out and learn a little bit about your company.”
N.J. has plenty of enterprise partners as part of its ecosystem. These large companies can acquire smaller ones or provide access to capital via their own venture investment divisions. They also “funnel money, time and research” into the tech ecosystem by hosting events or funding projects at universities.
What’s working against N.J? One factor is the outside perception of the state as a place populated by the Sopranos, the tanning mom and Snooki. There is an attitude, especially in New York, that can downgrade N.J., but because “we are a much smaller pond, when we make a splash it’s bigger.”
Kahn spent some time discussing where TechLaunch fits into the N.J. tech environment. The 12-week program gives great young teams seed funding, mentoring and some business instruction in return for a 10 percent stake and supports them by ensuring they have a product to demo and an investor presentation “with not a single question left unanswered.”
“We want to create a petri dish mentality, with teams helping teams, teams working alongside other entrepreneurs. … The key is mentorship, finding the right people to help a young company pivot its idea and make it something everyone must have.”
An audience member asked how N.J. can retain the many talented individuals it loses to out-of-state colleges after high school graduation. Kahn acknowledged that probably nothing will keep those people in N.J., since high school students tend to want to go to school away from home. “What we can do is promote the curricula at the colleges and universities here early and help train people to take part in the emerging tech scene,” he said.
Others questioned whether N.J. is “too spread out” to have sufficient community members to support a tech ecosystem, but Kahn disagreed. “New Jersey isn’t spread out compared to Silicon Valley,” he stated. “The people there are not all sitting in downtown San Francisco. They are in various communities like Palo Alto.” Also, he added, diversity adds something to the state. It lets different kinds of people from different backgrounds with different kinds of experience discover problems and solve them.