TEDxNavesink brought hundreds of people to Monmouth University in April. This year’s event centered on the theme of “Makers,” and featured some lively talks from a wide range of participants. Several of those folks were involved in a segment called “Making the Tech World,” and NJTechWeekly was able to remotely view several of the talks they gave.
Jay Bhatti, cofounder and CTO of BrandProject (New York, N.Y.), and an early-stage seed investor in New Jersey-based startups who has an office at Bell Works (Holmdel), asked a rhetorical question: “Why do some companies thrive in certain geographies, and why do certain geographies do really well in terms of tech innovation versus others?”
He said that the answer for Silicon Valley “is because of New Jersey.” Nobel Prize-winner William Shockley came up with a world-changing invention, but “he didn’t feel like he got the financial rewards from Bell Labs that he deserved, so he quit and went to Stanford,” and eventually created the first startup in the Valley.
As Shockley was a difficult person to deal with and held extreme opinions, eight of his employees left and raised money to build their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor (Sunnyvale, Calif.). “Fairchild messed the whole thing up by executing a clause in their contract that made everyone else employees, as opposed to part owners.” Some left, two of them starting Intel Capital (Santa Clara, Calif.) and two others Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (San Francisco and Menlo Park, Calif.), a big VC firm. Following Fairchild’s example, many other companies emerged, and Bhatti said that you could trace 2,000 companies back to Shockley.
“If you think about it, one small move by a mad scientist in New Jersey resulted in Silicon Valley becoming what it is today.”
Bhatti has done some research to figure out what attracts tech innovation, and he concluded that there are five pieces to the puzzle. The first is “what does your geography offer that no other place does.” New York, for example, does very well in media, and when they began to focus on e-commerce and media startups, it began to thrive as a tech hub.
What is New Jersey’s home field advantage? It produces an incredible amount of talent. But all that talent leaves. “I think we shouldn’t focus on what New York is good at. We should focus on the hard stuff, like supply chain technologies and the internet of things. These are things that New Jersey is really good at.”
Infrastructure is important too, he noted. “We haven’t had a place for entrepreneurs to [settle in for] a long time. That’s changing with places like Bell Works, Fort Monmouth and Asbury Park. Also, we need to push our universities to create more innovation zones, such as what Tigerlabs is doing in Princeton.” Some 25 percent of real estate owned by the state goes unused, he added, so that could be earmarked for innovation hubs.
Then Bhatti made a major proposal: “Regulations are very tough in New Jersey, and taxes are high. What I propose here is let’s reward victory. If you start an innovative company in New Jersey, you don’t have to pay a capital gains tax when you have an exit event. This will result in more companies coming to New Jersey and hiring more employees, and it will increase the tax base.”
Can New Jersey Follow Montreal’s Example?
Helge Seetzen, CEO of TandemLaunch, a Montreal-based technology transfer acceleration company, came to TEDxNavesink to describe how Montreal has revitalized its tech industry.
He said that he was thinking about what wealthy regions would look like in the future. “Clearly, it looks like entrepreneurs and innovation: ideas and the people who make ideas happen. That’s tricky because it’s not just about finding entrepreneurs; it’s about having an unfair share of the world’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Your fair share isn’t enough.”
So his shop scours the world for good ideas hidden away at universities worldwide, acquires them and brings them to Montreal. “In parallel, we find entrepreneurs from all over the globe. We find business leaders and technologists and engineers and passionate believers from any age, and we match them up with the technologies.”
“Technologists come [to Montreal] because we can build companies around these technologies, and universities work with us because we have the other pieces in place.” TandemLaunch also provides the new companies with a network of global companies to interact with, including most of the consumer electronics manufacturers on the planet. Then it gives these new companies cash, $500,000 for every entrepreneur to use as seed capital to get started. “That is how I believe you create wealth in the 21st century.”
Bob Lucky, former head of research at Telcordia Technologies (now part of Ericsson), in New Jersey, grilled Seetzen about the competing interests of academia and industry. Universities, he said, “don’t have a clue what the real problems are,” but want to make money from their intellectual property. On the other hand, industry is “a problem-rich environment,” but companies are very secretive about what they do. Seetzen responded that this is his job: to bridge that cultural gap. “What we do is act as an intermediary, essentially continuously.”
Making Driverless Cars a Reality
Akin Shoyoye, who is a cofounder of DriveAI, a New Jersey-based research organization focused on developing open-source software for autonomous vehicles so that anyone can build one, recalled that he had become interested in the space when he was working on a car documentary at Rutgers in Newark.
“I looked up one of the [future] founders of DriveAI. At that time, he was running a meetup group and I decided to go and interview him. Here he was, this 20-year-old kid, and we were around the same age.”
Shoyoye said that, at the time, he was scared of driving because he had been in a car accident. However, a friend showed him how a car actually works. “Through that, I gained a deep appreciation for the automobile and driving itself.” But when that founder told him that he was going to take away the steering wheel, brakes and accelerator, Shoyoye thought he was crazy.
At the meetup group he learned about autonomous vehicles, even though, at the very beginning, the group was only working with a “little car” about the size of a Hess truck. He became interested because this group was building something from scratch. “This really resonated with me because, coming from Nigeria at a young age, I watched my parents produce a lot with their hands. … I saw the same kind of values with these guys.”
Shoyoye said that there will be mistakes and missteps in the development of autonomous cars, but he realized that “this is an enormous moment in our time right now. We have one of the greatest inventions since the invention of the Internet.”
Using Avitars to Help Autistic Children
Talking about the use of technology to alleviate social skills disorders for autistic children, Chris Dudick, owner and executive producer at Small Factory Productions (Fair Haven), and Bernadette Mullen, owner and director of Speech Start, p.a. (Hazlet), talked about how the software they created together helps children.
Their software allows students to use avatars to practice all kinds of social skills, like topic elaboration and topic closure, while expressing appropriate emotions. The system uses video game controllers and microphone headsets to control the avatars, and it records interactions, which are then played back for the children, who can learn from them. Using an avatar decreases social anxiety and helps the students identify their own voices and use them to their own advantage, they said.