Located in Holmdel’s Bell Works building, Vi Coworking gives members a chance to spend time in one of New Jersey’s technological treasures. The massive Bell Works, which contains 1.6 million square feet of rentable space, used to be a facility for Bell Labs. Now it serves as a place for entrepreneurs to congregate.
That makes it a natural fit for Vi, which cofounder Chris Pallé said aims to be a “force multiplier” for New Jersey talent. Vi’s other cofounder, Sean Donohue, said that they wanted the space to act as a catalyst, a place to “collaborate with everybody else in New Jersey.”
Pallé has a professional background in user experience and design, while Donohue specialized in marketing and communications. They use their experience to educate and advise members, as Vi is also developing a venture support platform.
Vi is currently located in the Bell Works lobby, but its founders are renovating a part of the building to serve as the new premises. And although Vi has only been open since August, it has already attracted entrepreneurs like Sonny O’Yediran.
O’Yediran runs Winchester Drone Company, which is developing a business model he calls “drone as a service.” This comprises a “big fleet of drones that is controlled by experienced pilots in a central station,” he said. “And companies can literally come and make a request to use the drones.” He said that, among other functions, the service could be useful for making deliveries, inspecting newly built roofs, and checking on farmers’ crops.
“There’s always something happening” at Vi, said O’Yediran. Pallé and Donohue run a Meetup group called “NJ Strategic Design + Tech,” which meets at the coworking space. They’ve offered educational sessions on big data, the shared economy, 3D printers and more. Recently, a presentation about fundraising was delivered by David Sorin, chairman of the Venture Capital & Emerging Growth Companies practice at the law firm McCarter & English.
Another Vi member, Ronald Hiller, is building a company called “BLX.io”, which is developing agricultural automation software that would allow farmers to check on their equipment from thousands of miles away.
Hiller is also a former Bell Labs employee. He said he was happy to return to his old workspace after learning about Vi because he had “worked in this building three times, so it’s got a lot of personal connection.”
Former Bell Labs employees are often drawn to the facility. Donohue said that on a recent tour, “we had a lot of ex-Bell Labbers who, [when] they come back in, they want to go see their old office.” He added that “they’re really enthusiastic and they’re excited that this building is staying. It’s not being torn down and, you know, a whole bunch of condos go up. It’s being repurposed.”
In fact, the building was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its architecture. Its wide rectangular structure was designed by Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport.
Pallé and Donohue were drawn to the building from the outset. Donohue said that he had met Pallé in 2014, when he “began working for him at Wisdom + Craft, which is his [user experience] company. … And he actually mentioned one day this idea about repurposing buildings in New Jersey.”
Donohue recalled exploring such old buildings as a kid. “I had a big imagination,” he said. “And it would run wild when you’re in these buildings. You know, ‘What could be?’
“So we started exploring this. And we started looking at buildings in the local Monmouth [and] Ocean County area. And I don’t exactly remember how the discussion went, but one day we started talking about, ‘You know, what about up in Holmdel? Bell Labs, that building’s been just sitting there for years. And nothing’s going on there.’
“Well, as it turns out, we started looking into it and there was something going on there. Somerset Development had actually purchased the building, and they were already halfway there with the idea that we had to repurpose it. So we actually made some calls, we got a tour of the building, and then we met the developer, and sparks flew.”
Today Vi offers a number of features in addition to coworking. It also provides connections to support services like marketing, media, PR, accounting, business model design and legal help. These connections often take the form of “office hours” during which members can speak directly with experts.
Vi’s members can also gain insights from the founders themselves.
For example, Pallé’s background has given him the ability to advise members on product design. “A user, most of the time, can’t articulate what their needs are,” he said. “They can only express their frustration that their needs are not being met.” So Pallé helps coworking members figure out what their customers really need.
Members can also benefit from Vi’s free amenities, like Wi-Fi, conference and event space, a mailing address, printers, fax, phone, lockers and access to Bell Works’ gym.
And the founders plan to expand their services and offerings in the future. “We have a TV studio downstairs that we’re going to restore,” said Pallé. “And there’s a machine shop and a woodshop that we’re repurposing into a more modernized makerspace. We’re also developing an education space.” He added that they’re currently testing all of these ideas and welcome feedback from the public.
It’s an approach that reflects the founders’ philosophy of collaboration: “There’s all these little bright spots across the state,” Pallé said. “There’s people doing amazing things. And we want to tie that all together.”