When it comes to innovation, you move forward – fast – or you fall by the wayside. When New Jersey unveiled its new Innovation Hub in New Brunswick last week, we made a powerful statement: we will invest to build on our strengths, not just skate on them. We will lead – and we’ll do it through smarter, better collaboration.
But last week’s announcements – the $665 million state investment, the new state-of-the-art Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Rutgers Translational Research facilities, and adjacent space for entrepreneurial organizations throughout the ecosystem – can’t be the end of the story. They open a finite window of opportunity. They help prepare us to compete. We still have to win.
Let’s talk first about how we got here – and offer a little credit where it’s due. New Jersey’s private sector has already built a vibrant biotech and pharmaceutical sector here. Eight of the world’s top 10 investors in pharma/biotech research operate here; so do over 400 smaller firms in the space, many of them pioneers and leaders.
Recently, we’ve benefited from the exodus of great people from New York City during the recent pandemic. And we’ve also experienced strong leadership and responsible stewardship by Gov. Phil Murphy throughout the COVID crisis. That has mattered. It’s increased the confidence of both companies and families considering relocating here. In an era where talent can increasingly work from anywhere, quality of life, amenities, education, infrastructure, diversity and culture are all more important than ever. New Jersey shines here, too – but, as the governor has recognized, these attributes also need to be treasured, honed and grown.
Within the technology sector, the state’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship has been consistently impressive, in terms of leadership, funding, and programs. Tim Sullivan at New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Jose Lozano at Choose NJ have been especially effective in helping to attract more growing companies. Case in point: HAX’s choice of Newark as home for a new, state-of-the-art $50 million facility where it will partner with founders and early-stage startups in industrial, health care and climate technology. Winning this accelerator against the world’s toughest competition was no small accomplishment. It happened thanks to them, the personal efforts of Gov. Murphy and the thoughtful leadership of one of the planet’s top investors, Sean O’Sullivan. This was collaboration as it’s meant to be.
The Innovation Hub announcements signal broader, deeper collaboration across New Jersey’s outstanding higher education community – both between schools within Rutgers, and with Princeton. That culminates years of hard work by leaders like Jonathan Holloway, Christopher Eisgruber, Brian Strom and Deborah Prentice at both great institutions. For far too long, silos and fiefdoms have been the reality in higher education. But wise and farsighted leaders have recognized that more cooperation and knowledge sharing are essential as we compete with Boston and with expanding biopharma innovation hubs in North Carolina Texas, and Southern California.
What’s next? As I’ve said, we’ve opened a finite window of opportunity. There’s more to do, and it won’t all be easy. We’ve made great strides creating new incentives for entrepreneurs, but now we must trim their taxes without compromising the services and amenities that attract great people to this state.
We need to execute crisply on the projects we’ve announced. We need to do everything necessary to transform all this new space into a thriving on-the-ground physical community of researchers and “commercializers” – and link it more tightly to the great private R&D organizations already operating here. We need to build on New Jersey’s traditional welcome for smart, hard-working immigrants, making sure that the world knows this is a great place for them to build a life and raise a family. My recent TEDx talk highlights that 1/3 of the biotech workforce are immigrants.
In addition, we need to build on New Jersey’s strengths in K-12 education and promote greater STEM innovation there. That’s precisely what the Liberty Science Center is doing with last week’s exciting new announcement of the Edge Works incubation hub and a new world-class STEM academy that will link advanced learning, intensive mentorships, and work experience.
Finally, and not least, we need to work fast. Arguably, we have a two-year window before lower-cost innovation hubs mature and begin luring away our best and brightest.
Succeeding will require even stronger and more sustained leadership and collaboration by our political, business and nonprofit leaders. Smart, enlightened leadership isn’t something to take for granted these days. But from what I’m seeing, this generation of New Jersey’s leaders is up to the challenge – and that’s very good news.
James Barrood is founder and CEO of Innovation+, a curated global community of engaged entrepreneurs and innovators. He is also an advisor to startups, growth companies, corporates and universities, as well as to Tech Council Ventures and JumpStart Angel Network.