Opinion: Waterfront Ventures Conference Just First Step in Emerging Camden Tech Startup Scene

Photo: Packed room listening to speakers at Waterfront Ventures conference Photo Credit: Johnathan Grzybowski
Packed room listening to speakers at Waterfront Ventures conference | Johnathan Grzybowski

When you Google “Camden, New Jersey,” a lot of words and phrases pop up, such as “America’s most dangerous city,” “one of America’s poorest cities” and, simply, “crime.” The other hits you get are even worse.

So when a Camden-based nonprofit called “Waterfront Ventures” decided to host a startup conference to raise awareness of the Camden Waterfront among entrepreneurs and other businesspeople, it had no idea that it would receive such a big response.

In collaboration with Rutgers University–Camden, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, Hopeworks and other Camden-based organizations, Waterfront Ventures was able to hold a startup event that featured four keynote speakers: Nick Bayer, CEO of Saxbys Coffee (Philadelphia, Pa.) Chad Stender, director of operations of SeventySix Capital (Radnor, Pa.); George Pelose, regional vice president of Keiretsu Forum Mid-Atlantic (Philadelphia, Pa.); and Damon Pennington, CEO of ATS Group (Camden).

When asking Khai Tran, a cofounder and the CEO of Waterfront Ventures, about his company’s “waterfront initiative,” he answered, “We created Waterfront Ventures with the sole purpose of creating a fun, innovative, and inspiring culture for startups and entrepreneurs. For years Camden carried a poor reputation, and wasn't considered a place for startups or any technology firms to settle into. We want to change that and build a thriving culture that cultivates fun, innovation and inspiration on the waterfront. We want to bring out the best in the city of Camden and invite others to come join us in our vision to evolve the city.”

Photo: Damon Pennington of ATS Group spoke at the Waterfront Ventures conference Photo Credit: Johnathan Grzybowski
Damon Pennington of ATS Group spoke at the Waterfront Ventures conference | Johnathan Grzybowski

The startup conference took place in late May, with 281 people signing up. The attendees were crammed into a smoldering hot room at the Waterfront Technology Center, at 200 Federal Street, in Camden. The AC broke during the four-hour event, but that didn't bother the attendees or the speakers at the highly anticipated gathering.

This was the first of a series of biannual events, and it kicked off with the four keynote speakers, who discussed their backgrounds and provided some tips on entrepreneurship. “I think it's important to bring innovative companies to South Jersey and I wanted to be a part of it … I want to grow Camden, regardless of the heat,” said Pennington.

Once the keynote speakers were done, the event then featured a late-night pitch competition, during which the audience heard from Philadelphia startups like MilkCrate, Red Queen, GamePlan andSuBoCity., as well as Linked Noodle, in Marlton. Linked Noodle, an online platform connecting students to local teachers, took third prize. Second place went to MilkCrate, a mission-driven tech company offering unique products. MilkCrate created a tool called “My MilkCrate,” which helps people discover local, sustainable businesses in their neighborhoods.

Photo: The GamePlan team presents at the Waterfront Ventures Conference Photo Credit: Johnathan Grzybowski
The GamePlan team presents at the Waterfront Ventures Conference | Johnathan Grzybowski

And the first prize winner was GamePlan. Developed by a team that was originally based in Philadelphia, GamePlan is an app that helps you make better decisions regarding where to eat, drink and hang out with your friends—based on of your personality. The company won over $5,000 in prizes, one of which was a free month’s membership at Camden CoLab. The GamePlan team intends to work at Camden CoLab over the next month to lay a better foundation for their business.

Shahid Rana, the VP of business development at Cooper’s Ferry, has been working on redeveloping the Camden Waterfront. Shahid said, “I was very proud to see that … the business community got to a point where they want to come to Camden. I don't think this type of event would have happened five years ago, or three years ago. We got to a point [where] outsiders are willing to come into Camden and get inspired! It is important to grow a vibrant tech community in Camden because Camden and its residents need it. The more small businesses that are successful, the more opportunities there are for them to benefit from. The positive news and success will go beyond Camden, and it has no limits.”

One of Waterfront Ventures’ goals for the rest of 2016 is to develop additional programs, in particular their Lighthouse Learning Mentorships, designed to help early-stage startups by pairing them with either an established startup or an investor. This will be a learning opportunity for startups and teams looking for additional training. If selected, a startup will be enrolled in a one-month program during which the founders will be able to meet and conduct conference calls with their mentor. This opportunity is reserved only for early-stage startups that have thus far received less than $100,000 in funding or no funding at all. 

Waterfront Ventures’ other, more ambitious goals are to hold a Startup Weekend in Camden and then follow up with another startup conference in the fall.

{Johnathan Grzybowski is an event coordinator for Waterfront Ventures.]

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